A quick interview with Barbara Howe: Fantasy Author

Welcome to my fourth IFWG author interview for this year! It’s published as part of IFWG’s Uncaching the Treasure’s campaign. Some of the authors I’ve interviewed for this series I’ve known or read their work before so it’s super exciting to shake things up and talk to someone I hadn’t come across until now. It helps that Barbara is a super interesting person and likes the same books as me (yay for Trixie Belden and Mary Stewart romance thrillers!). She’s really put lots of thought into her responses for today’s post and I appreciate that a lot. I’m always learning with every new interview I do, so without further ado, welcome Barbara, whose new book, The Wordsmith (Book Four in the Reforging series) came out 15th Feb.

Barbara Howe lives on the third rock from the sun, while her imagination travels the universe and beyond. Born in the US (North Carolina), she spent most of her adult life in New Jersey, working in the software industry, on projects ranging from low-level kernel ports to multi-million-dollar financial applications. She moved to New Zealand in 2009, gained dual citizenship, and now works as a software developer in the movie industry. She lives in Wellington, in a house overflowing with books and jigsaw puzzles, and wishes she had more time time to spend universe hopping.

What appeals to you about writing and reading stories that are rooted in fantasy and magic? 

Fantasy is fun! There’s the escapism factor, certainly, and the only limits are in what we can imagine. Another selling point for me is that magic scrambles the pecking order. Physical strength and privileged position can be forced to give way to other qualities, like intelligence and compassion.

Your bio mentions you are a software developer in the film industry. How have your experiences in this field affected your writing (if at all). You also mention a house of games and jigsaw puzzles. Do either of these feature in your writing or influence it?

My background in software development certainly has had an influence on my writing. The notable characteristic of the society in the Reforging series is its dependence on four ancient magical entities: the Earth, Air, Fire, and Water Offices. These Offices are essentially rule-based AIs, driven by magic rather than electronics. Each one works through the witch or wizard heading the respective magic guild. The Fire Office is responsible for the country’s defences, the Water Office oversees the judicial system, etc.

Like all software, the Offices are buggy. Also like many legacy systems, they are well past their use-by date, and impossible to maintain with the original designers long gone. This, by the way, is the central issue driving the plot arc for the full series: the Offices can’t be simply repaired; they must be stripped down and rebuilt from scratch. That’s the Reforging—rebuilding these magical entities, rather than recreating some physical object like a sword—and the process is quite dangerous and disruptive.

As far as working in the film industry goes, perhaps it has made me think a bit more about providing details about the setting, rather than just dropping the characters onto an empty stage or in front of a virtual green screen. I have to work at grounding the action in time and space, so that the reader doesn’t get frustrated wondering where they are.

And puzzles … I’ve been honing my puzzle solving skills since childhood. After a tough day at work, solving software puzzles, I’ll often pick up a crossword or sudoku to relax. And aren’t plots puzzles? A writer has to keep the big picture in mind all the time, while still drilling down into the details of making sure the pieces fit together. Working out a complicated plot is an interesting challenge.

It seems to me that the Reforging series is about issues such as sexism, classism, power imbalance and ordinary people having the moral courage to do the right thing. Would you agree and why were these important for you to explore? 

Yes, absolutely. I didn’t set out to explore those weighty issues when I started writing these books; I simply had what I thought was an entertaining story. But as I dove into this world and explored its society, these issues kept popping up. I couldn’t make the world real enough to be believable and engaging without including them.

One of the principles I attempt to live by is that there is inherent worth and dignity in every human being. All of these “isms” blind us to that divine spark in others across the divide. I can’t yet imagine a world without those issues, but I can imagine worlds where we work harder at mitigating their impacts. I can imagine I’ve done something worthwhile, if my little bit helps move us in that direction.

You describe yourself in your website bio as an ‘unabashed liberal feminist.’ Can you talk a bit about what that term means to you and how it influences your work and/or characters in the Reforging series?

That’s a lot to unpack in a few lines! For me, the main points are that we all—men and women both—should be allowed to develop into our full selves, even if we don’t fit nicely into preconceived roles, and we should be judged on the choices we make, not on our starting conditions: skin colour, gender, wealthy or poor parents, etc. My characters push back when pushed into roles they’re not fit for. My female characters don’t wait to be rescued; they rescue themselves, and sometimes the men in their lives, too. And my women support other women; female friendships matter to them.

On that note (and because I am also an unabashed feminist who likes to support female writers who write gender well), could you recommend some other great female fantasy books you’ve read recently and let us know why we should all seek them out?

Always happy to share good books. Here are three, all with likeable female protagonists who act decisively in a crisis:

The Silence of Medair, by Australian author Andrea K Höst, is an emotionally gripping story dealing with failure, loss, and reconciliation. This is satisfying both as a fast-moving, engrossing story and as a terrific character study.

The Lord of Stariel, by New Zealand author A. J. Lancaster, is the first book in a four-part series combining fairy tale magic, mystery, family drama, and sweet romance.

American author Arkady Martine’s Hugo-winning novel, A Memory Called Empire, is science fiction rather than fantasy, but I loved it. Most of the characters are women, and they’re all terrific. Space opera at its best.

What was the impetus for the Reforging series?

My daughter is an auditory learner. She reads well on her own, but gets more out of a story from listening to someone else read it. She’s now in her mid-twenties, once more living at home, and I still read to her.

In her teens, we read quite a bit of juvenile and young adult fiction, and we’ve always been eager to find new stories about intelligent, proactive, strong-minded women. Some of the books we found were terrific. Some others made me think, I can do better than this. If this drivel can get published, what’s stopping me? I got frustrated with grimdark dystopias, and female characters who—if they appeared at all—were either ditzes, doormats, or window dressing. Plot-induced stupidity is one of my pet peeves, and I’ve read way too many books featuring supposedly smart women making asinine choices.

In 2010, when my daughter was 14, we had a run of bad luck in our book choices. We had just moved to New Zealand, I was still looking for a job, and I had more free time than I’d had in years. I started the Reforging series then, because I wanted  a story with a female protagonist whose behaviour wouldn’t make me cringe, or blush, or roll my eyes. I was writing for my daughter, but I was writing for myself, too, because I wanted a story I could read to her with as much enthusiasm as she put into listening.

Besides, I had a good story to tell.

Tell us a bit more about The Wordsmith, which is Book 4 in the Reforging series. Where did the idea for the novel start?

First, let me describe how The Wordsmith fits into the overall series. (Mild spoilers here.) I’ve already mentioned the Offices. The five-book arc involves gathering the people needed to reforge them, and the impacts that effort has on both those individuals and the society they’re a part of. 

The first three books introduce the Fire and Water Guilds, and deal with reforging the Water Office—the one in charge of a judicial system that had dispensed mostly injustice. The upheavals that come as a result are still playing out in The Wordsmith. With commoners finally getting a fair go in the courts, the nobility have woken up to the fact that they’re losing privilege. They’re furious, and threatening civil war with the magic guilds. In trying to keep the situation under control, the magic guilds use the new judicial system to force the nobles to honour the terms of their ancient royal charters, which set some minimum requirements of fairness to the people the nobles rule over.

That’s where Irene van Gelder, my Wordsmith, comes in. She’s a young widow with two small children, struggling to make ends meet with a job that’s breaking her health. She’s also an air witch with an unusual talent. The primary manifestation is that she sees written words in different colours depending on the intent of the writer. She can pick out lies, errors, and heightened emotional states with a single glance at a page.

The inspiration for this came at least 20 years ago, when I read an article on synaesthesia, a real-world neurological phenomenon that integrates different senses in unusual ways. I was fascinated by the subject; it seemed to me like a magical talent, and I’ve been playing with ways to incorporate it into stories ever since. Irene’s talent is an extrapolation of one common form, where the synaesthete sees individual letters on a page in different colours.

Her talent is useful to her as a writer or editor, but it isn’t readily demonstrable, and that makes her life very difficult. Her own guild, the Air Guild, don’t believe in her talent. All they know is that she can’t sing, or talk to another person at a distance, or follow the wind with her mind’s eye, or do anything a normal air witch can do. It’s not that she veers out of her swim lane—it’s more like she’s  not even in the same pool. It’s no wonder, really, that the Air Guild call her a fraud, or that some of them bully her, especially when the head of her guild won’t stand up for her.

When the Fire Guild recruit Irene to search for the often intentionally hidden or partially destroyed charters, she jumps at the opportunity. Her discoveries prove instrumental in swinging a court case against a duchess who is also an air witch, and the entire Air Guild turns on her. She takes her children and runs to safety with the Fire Guild, but with the Fire and Air Guilds already snarling at each other, her life gets even more complicated.

Tell us more about the protagonists of The Wordsmith. What do you think will appeal to readers about them and their journey? What was the hardest part of writing this novel? What was the easiest? 

Irene is a new character, but the two protagonists from the earlier books, Lucinda and Duncan, also appear in supporting roles, following two other intertwined plot threads. At the beginning, Irene is far from the centre of action, but is gradually drawn in closer until the action revolves around her.

The easiest parts of writing this were the interactions Lucinda and Duncan have with each other and other recurring characters. I’ve lived with them in my head for so long (more than a decade) that they are old friends, and I know exactly how they will behave.

Irene is by nature quiet and self-effacing. The hardest part was to work her into the early chapters in such a way that Lucinda and Duncan didn’t overpower her story. Because that story, about an under-appreciated woman discovering what she’s capable of, is one many of us can appreciate, particularly anyone who has ever been mansplained to or passed over for a promotion.

Do you have a favourite/intriguing passage you’d like to share with this blog to tease readers of The Wordsmith?

Here, Irene is demonstrating her talent for Warlock Quicksilver, the country’s pre-eminent wizard, who is pre-disposed to appreciate her. Oliver is her late husband, who is believed to have written a well-received book of spells.

Quicksilver turned to a bookmarked page, then laid the book and paper on the table.

“Can you read either?”

“No, sir.”

“Have you ever seen this book?”

“No, sir. The alphabet is new to me.”

“The script is Devanagari; the language is Hindi. The manuscript is a translation of this page. What can you tell me about them?”

“There are inaccuracies in the original: here, and here. The translator fixed one, here, but not the other, and introduced several other mistakes accidentally, here, here, and here. Further, the entire third paragraph is a deliberate mistranslation. For some reason, the translator lied.”

He almost purred. “You could be a very useful young lady. Very useful indeed.”

The spell book appeared in his hand, and he paged through it. “It is obvious now why Oliver’s writing was so polished. Many authors would benefit from an editor of such calibre. This exquisite little book of spells, for instance—did you help him with the wording?”

Never, ever lie to a warlock. She hesitated a trifle too long. He looked up, expression intent. There was nothing sensible she could say. He repeated the question.

Panic crept into her voice. “No, sir, I didn’t help with the wording.”

His eyes were hard. “You are evading the question. Did you write these spells?”

“Yes, sir,” she whispered, and cowered as Warlock Quicksilver slammed the book down onto the table.

“How dare you perpetrate this monstrous fraud!”

What’s next for you on the writing horizon?

I’ve already handed The Forge, the last book in the series, over to the publisher, and have two new projects I’ve been bouncing between. One is a romance, a prequel to the Reforging series. The other is set in an unrelated fantasy universe with different rules. This one will be a familiar fairy tale recast as a Mary Stewart-style romantic suspense fantasy. 

Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Barbara! Readers, if you’re keen to learn more about The Wordsmith, check out the blurb and purchase information below:

Irene van Gelder’s drudge job is killing her, but how can she earn a living as an air witch when her own guild calls her a fraud?

The Fire Warlock doesn’t ask for her credentials, but with tensions rising between the Fire and Air Guilds, proving her value to him is not a safe move. With the White Duchess and her son intent on revenge, what defences can a failure as an air witch muster? All she has is words. Will that be enough to save herself, and Frankland?

You can read more about the book at the publisher’s website with The Wordsmith available for purchase in all good ebook and print outlets. It is distributed through Gazelle (UK/Europe), Novella (Australia) and IPG (North America).