Next week sees the publication of J.M. Frey’s latest novel The Untold Tale. It sounds as a great read and very fun and has received some great advance praise. Since I’m still on a review hiatus, I thought I’d ask J.M. if she’s let me interview her and she kindly agreed. I hope you enjoy the interview below in which J.M. tells us about her path to publication and about what exactly a fantropologist is.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is J.M. Frey?
It’s a human-shaped creature that identifies cisfemale. It really likes tea, scarves, warm socks, and Marvel films. It is most active during the night, as it prefers to write in the dark, and often sleeps very late during the daylight hours. It’s favorite habitats are hot tubs and beds with far too many pillows on it.
How would you introduce people to Forsyth, Lucy, and The Untold Tale?
I like to joke that The Untold Tale is the ninth book in an eight-book series.
A lat of times, you get these big classic fantasy stories that follow a single hero, or a small band of heroes, and their adventures as they travel a world and fight the evils of those opposing them. They come upon burned out villages or castles under attack, and you see that all from the perspective of the heroes, and never that of the people who actually lived (and possibly died) in the villages or castles. What happens to the people who are sorcerer and dragon fodder? For that matter, what about the damsel, who is in distress? Or the family of hero, left behind in their home village?
The Untold Tale is told from this perspective – it’s told from the POV of the hero’s little brother, a man who had maybe two lines in the original books, and hasn’t been seen in more four scenes in the whole series. He’s referred to but his character is never really shown.
That is Forsyth, and The Untold Tale is all about his life, the live that his creator doesn’t know he’s lived, the things he’s done, the ways that being the overlooked brother of the hero has shaped his life and his perspectives, and what happens when Lucy Piper – a woman who is about as domestic as a shooting star – crash-lands in his life and forces him to reevaluate his own perceptions of his worth and his abilities.
Forsyth, in a way, is a sort of Geek Everyman. I had another Geek Everyman character in Triptych, with Basil Grey, so I suppose that shows you how much I respect geeks! Forsyth is intellectual, reserved, intelligent, and well-spoken, but at the same time painfully shy and lacking in self-confidence. Pip is a Geek Everyman too, a well-read, brash, confident woman who is seek of being called Fake and Poser just because she loves ‘boy’s things’.
What was your path to publication? Did you follow the traditional route or did you find your own way?
My first novel was traditionally published (though I’ve selfpublished some short stories and an Adult Colouring Book since) with an indie press, and The Untold Tale (and the rest of the books in The Accidental Turn Series) will also be published by an indie press.
Like a lot of my author-friends, I followed the traditional route and wrote a book (Triptych), polished it, and queried around for agents. This is where the story diverges. I had also queried a few small and indie presses with Triptych as well, and those were rejected too. I had 64 rejections in all, and the last twenty or so were close-calls. The rejection letters had some nice suggestions in them and I ended up editing the novel according to those suggestions before querying the next person.
As it happened, while I was querying, I was invited to a room party at the Ad Astra convention in Toronto. It was a bunch of authors, actors, editors and agents, and there I got chatting with an editor. I had been moaning earlier that nobody wanted my “gay alien threesome” book, and she asked me to tell her about it. At the end of our conversation, she asked me to email the book to her. I did, and after reading it, she rejected it. However, she gave me some fantastic feedback. I asked if I could resubmit it to her after I’d made edits and she said yes. (Little did I know, but this editor had fears that the book couldn’t be altered and I wouldn’t be able to pull the revisions off.)
Several months later I sent it back. She told me later that she was terrified to read it because she didn’t want to have to say no twice. Luckily, my revisions were good enough and she got to say yes, instead!
Triptych was published in April 2011 and was nominated for a small pile of things that season. It was also named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly. Those accolades brought me to the attention of some agents, and I was offered representation. I accepted, though after a couple of years I realized my agent and I were not a good fit, and I left him for my current amazing agent Laurie McLean.
It was Laurie who encouraged me to selfpublish the stories I had that weren’t novel-length, and it was Laurie who brokered the two three-book deals for The Accidental Turn series and The Skylark’s Saga series, which will premiere after Accidental Turn has been fully released. And I’m working with REUTS Publications, who acquired both series, to also put out some novellas, and short stories between the novels in order to flesh out the world and keep readers engaged.
So the TL;DR version is: Yes, and no. I more-or-less followed the traditional path, but I did some things out of order, and I’ve also jumped into selfpubbing with gleeful abandon.
The Untold Tale is not your first book to be published. A quick glance at your bibliography also shows that you’ve published not just SFF stories but non-fiction and scholarly writing as well. While obviously writing in these disciplines is different – if only in content – but do you find that you also have a different voice in each of them or are they all recognisably yours?
Yes, the voice and tone of scholarly writing is very different from fictional work. And even between my fiction books, the novels have different narrators and tones. But yes, you’re correct, I would say that they all sound like me.
My work is usually quite personal, and I open up about things that affect me directly or use myself and my lived experiences as a Primary Resource a lot. I make a point of talking about issues from the humanitarian, compassionate, intensely self-exploratory position that you see in a lot of Narrative Memoires. More than that, my work is inevitably and usually overtly feminist, queer, and optimistic. I don’t see the point in telling stories or writing articles from the same-old-same-old perspectives that they’ve been told from for so long. That doesn’t make me misandrist or a straight-hater, it just means that I don’t see the point in rewriting what’s already been written. Time to tell new stories.
You’re a fantropologist and a scholar. Could you maybe explain what it is exactly a fantropologist does?
I sort of stole the term “Fanthropologist” from an old Live journal Community that I was a part of back in the days of, well, Livejournal Communities! “Fanthropology” is a portmanteau of fandom and anthropology. The community was focused on the social and anthropological study of fandom, and it’s various online and offline tribes. Fanthropology as a study, however, was popularized in the mainstream by Prof. Henry Jenkins and his book Textual Poachers. (He’s not only a great researcher but also an engaging writer. I’ve devoured all of his books).
Basically, it’s applying sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and critical theory studies (especially women’s crit and queer crit) to fandom. It’s basically like studying Shakespeare’s plays, his life, his society, and his influences. Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare was the rockstar super-writer of the day, his work was pop culture, and everyone was discussing his latest play around the Elizabethan water cooler.
But instead of waiting four hundred years for say, Buffy and Doctor Who to become stodgy, canonized ‘classics’, we’re studying it now.
I really loved reading everyone’s articles and blog posts, and contributing my own. More than that, the community also acted as editors and kindly peer reviewers. I learned a lot through their informal mentorship.
I was a part of the community all through my undergrad career, and those articles coloured my view of everything I was learning in school and very heavily influenced my undergrad thesis and major papers. When it came time for me to decide what to do for my Masters Degree, I decided to find a program that would allow me to get a degree in, essentially, Fanthropology. I wrote my MA thesis on Mary Sue fanfiction, and I’m still super proud of it.
Do you find your academic research influences your fiction writing?
Absolutely. Having a grasp of socio-economic history, the evolution of language, religion, government, etc. can absolutely help in creating a world or society for a book that is believable, has a deep history upon which you can draw as a writer, and could function. People love Lord of the Rings because Tolkien was so adept at creating not only these grand mythical tales of bravery and personal sacrifice, but also a deep, rich world that is thick with mythology, contradictions, empires that rose and fell, and details of custom, manner, taboos, food, and dress.
When someone asks me how they could be a better writer I always recommend that they read pop science and cultural reader books like The History of Everything or No Logo, Bonk, Red: The History of the Redhead, Three Cups of Tea, Lost Japan, Wrong About Japan, Coming of Age in Samoa, Textual Poachers, Sex at Dawn, etc. Read books on the fall of the Roman Empire. Read books about the great African Kings. Read books about Persian mathematicians. Read more than just fiction, and read about more societies and civilizations than your own. Read about other cultures, but make sure to also read books by people from that culture, not solely from outsiders.
What’s next for you? Any appearances or conventions planned?
Whoa nelly, is there ever a lot planned.
December 5th I running a post-NaNoWriMo workshop in Fergus titled “I Did It! It’s Done! Now What?”
December 8th is the release day for The Untold Tales, and I’m running a celebration event online that day. Everyone is welcome!
In early December there are launch parties for The Untold Tale on December 10th in Toronto, December 11th in Fergus, and December 17th in Guelph. They’re all open to the public so everyone is welcome! I’m also going to be at the launch for The Secret Lives of Geek Girls, an anthology I have a chapter in, on December 9th.
Glad Day Bookshop and I are also discussing maybe doing a reading event, but we haven’t settled the date yet.
In terms of conventions, I’ll be one of the Guests of Honor at SciFi on the Rock in April, and then a guest at the Elora Writer’s Festival in May. I haven’t been invited to anything else in 2016 yet. If I had to put it out there, I’d love to be invited to Geek Girl Con in Seattle, the Eden Mills Writer’s Festival, and one of the big ones like New York ComicCon or San Diego ComicCon. But that’s dreaming big!
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
I love voice acting! Right now it’s a bit of a hobby, but I audition a lot online and I’m hoping one day to get an agent and be able to do things like voicing cartoon shows or dubbing anime. It’s a very difficult skill, to be able to emote, speak clearly but also naturally, and work the microphone appropriately all at once. And it’s even harder if you’re using a put-on character’s intonation or accent. You can hear a little of it here.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
Oh, gosh, does this mean I have to admit that I haven’t read anything that wasn’t as a favour to my agent or in order to critique a fellow writer’s work, or for book research in like… eight months?? I’m a terrible author. I don’t even know what’s coming out soon.
Instead I’ll tell you which authors you should be reading, and then that way you can fill your shelves!
Definitely Julie Czerneda, as she is always an insightful, interesting writer who grounds her fantastical worlds in actual science. She’s a biologist, so she knows what she’s talking about!
Go read Erin Bow, because she always makes me laugh out loud, and then ugly cry. She has a gorgeous grasp of character, and a delightful way of twisting the narrative so that even a professional storyteller like me can’t guess where it’s going next. She’s also a trained smarty-pants, and used to work for CERN.
James Bow’s Icarus Down is on the horizon, and I’ve been his critique partner on two novels now, so I can tell you his work is filled with interesting twists on reality and spunky protagonists that will really resonate with Middle Grade readers.
And go read Adrienne Kress because she always writes with a whimsical, delightful voice that is so very reminiscent of Douglas Adams and Lemony Snicket, but is unwaveringly and unapologetically feminist in all the best ways.
And buy everything put out by Hope Nicholson’s Bedside Press. Hope is a Canadian Comics enthusiast, and has put out gorgeous reproductions of hard-to-find Golden Age comics that were written and produced in Canada. She also puts out anthologies of current comics focused on important issues in the Canadian comics scene, like making space of indigenous stories and creators, and the unique challenges faced by geeky girls in pursuit of true love.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
Oh, this is terrible, I’m so ashamed… I’ve just moved into a new place and all my books are simply crammed into a credenza hutch. I have my great-grandmother’s antique dining room furniture, and since I didn’t have the space for my bookshelf, I put it in storage and decided to use the credenza in my bedroom for books. Everything is squeezed in wherever it can fit. It’s ungodly.
However, I do keep my eReader, my favourite graphic novels and manga, and my current reads-in-progress in my wee bedside shelf, so I have easy access to those when I want to read at the end of the day.
I keep my reference books in my office –I have my Jane Austen for Dummies, my Save the Cat, Eats Shoots & Leaves, Author! Screenwriter! and lots of reference books about things like recipes and food culture in 17th century Newfoundland, books about Regency-period clothing, Toronto during the Jazz Age, books about the history of the Don Valley Jail, and generally anything that I have picked up for the various different novels I’m developing. I like to have those close at hand when I hit a part of the book that makes me go “No, wait, is that really what they would have eaten/worn/said/seen/done?”
Back when I had a bookshelf, I organized by theme. I had all the children’s books together, then all the books featuring vampires together, the epic fantasy books together, the Jane Austen adaptation books together, the textbooks broken into subject areas (Latin language and the Classical World; Japanese language, culture and mythology; theatre studies, plays, and film theory; anthropology, etc.) and the like. And those books were generally organized by date of publication. I liked to see the progression of literary inspiration evolving all in a row. I’d shelve them from, say, Carmilla and The Vampyre, to Dracula, then on to Fred Saberhagen’s The Dracula Tapes and (god, my absolute favourite book ever) The Dracula-Holmes File, then the novelization of the film Bram Stocker’s Dracula, then the R.L. Stien and Anne Rice books, then Mr. Darcy, Vampire, and Jane Austen Bites Back. Like that.
And of course, in the living room is where my Brag Shelf lives. It’s a shelf of all the books I’ve written, and all the anthologies I’m in. That one gives me warm fuzzies, and I love it when people come over and browse the shelf.
Bio: J.M. is an actor, voice actor, and SF/F author, fanthropologist and professional geek. She’s appeared in podcasts, documentaries, and on television to discuss all things geeky through the lens of academia. She also has an addiction to scarves, Doctor Who, and tea, which may or may not all be related. Her life’s ambitions are to have stepped foot on every continent (only 3 left!), and to perform a duet with John Barrowman.
Her debut novel TRIPTYCH was nominated for two Lambda Literary Awards, won the San Francisco Book Festival award for SF/F, was nominated for a 2011 CBC Bookie, was named one of The Advocate’s Best Overlooked Books of 2011, and garnered both a starred review and a place among the Best Books of 2011 from Publishers Weekly.
Her sophomore novel, an epic-length feminist meta-fantasy titled The Untold Tale, (book one of the Accidental Turn Series), debuts December 2015, followed by two more in 2016. The Skylark’s Song, book one of The Skylark’s Saga, a steampunk action novel about a girl vigilante and her mysterious rocketpack, will be published in summer 2017.