Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today, E.J. Russell – E.J. Russell holds a BA and an MFA in theater, so naturally she’s spent the last three decades as a financial manager, database designer, and business-intelligence consultant. After her twin sons left for college and she no longer spent half her waking hours ferrying them to dance class, she returned to her childhood love of writing fiction. Now she wonders why she ever thought an empty nest meant leisure.
Thanks so much, EJ, for joining me!
Comment on this post for a chance to win an eBook of one of EJ’s Riptide backlist titles!
J. Scott Coatsworth: Were you a voracious reader as a child?
E.J. Russell: Absolutely. As an introverted child, and one who lived in a neighborhood with few kids my own age, reading was my primary occupation. Few of my relatives understood how crucial books—and the time to read them—were to me. As a child, when I was shipped off to spend summers with my extended family in Illinois, I lived for infrequent library trips. I think I plowed through my aunt’s Reader’s Digest Condensed Book collection, I was that desperate.
JSC: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
EJ: I’m not sure I’d describe it as “knowing” that I wanted to write—it was more like discovering that writing happened! When I was in second grade, our class went on a field trip to a dairy. Afterward, our assignment was to write a story about the visit. Keep in mind, this was in the day when our writing implements were pencils the approximate size of our skinny little wrists and the paper looked like this:
I interpreted “story” to mean…well…a story, not just a description of the trip. I cranked out seventeen pages, the tale of a Holstein cow named Trinket with an apparent identity crisis: she kept thinking she was other animals and (blame an eight-year-old’s fine ignorance of biology) kept producing hybrid offspring. It was illustrated. In color. Trinket’s shocking pink udder provided my mother with endless years of entertainment.
JSC: What fantasy realm would you choose to live in and why?
EJ: I think I’d choose Time City, from Diana Wynne Jones’s A Tale of Time City, mainly because I really really really want to taste a butter pie!
JSC: How would you describe your writing style/genre?
EJ: I think I have a pretty informal, conversational style—although others may disagree! My tagline is “eclectic romance, reality optional,” because I write both contemporary and…not, straight romance and…not.
Of my seven books with Riptide, five are “reality optional”—I find that “paranormal” doesn’t describe them precisely, nor does “urban fantasy.” Bookbub has a category called “supernatural suspense” which I glommed onto immediately. There’s a supernatural element, but the primary romantic couple may or may not be the element in question. In Stumptown Spirits, for instance, Riley and Logan are both fully human, however they’re required to battle with supernatural adversaries in order to earn their HEA.
My contemporary romances definitely trend toward romantic comedy. No high-angst tortured heroes for me—give me light and fluff!
JSC: What pets are currently on your keyboard, and what are their names? Pictures?
EJ: I have a twelve-year-old Italian Greyhound named Nino who cuddles up next to me in my writing chair (usually under a blanket).
JSC: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
EJ: My first book was a novella called Northern Light, published by Entangled in 2013. It was another “supernatural suspense” in which the two heroes were fighting supernatural elements but were not themselves supernatural. This book is not available at the moment—the rights reverted to me and I’m in the process or working with my Riptide editor to revise the book significantly for re-release along with its sequel. Very excited about that!
JSC: What fictional speculative fiction character would you like to spend an evening with and why?
EJ: It’s a toss-up between Antryg Windrose from Barbara Hambly’s Dog Wizard series (because he’s such a quirky guy with a too-tender heart, who’s forced to make hard (and sometimes heartbreaking) choices for the sake of others with no agency; and Sethra Lavode from Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series because she’s just soooo mysterious.
JSC: What’s your writing process?
EJ: I’m a micro-plotter, something that strikes terror into the heart of pantsers everywhere. Several years ago, I took a class from the amazing Suzanne Johnson (author of the Sentinels of New Orleans series, among others) called Quilting 101: Patchworking the Perfect Plot. She teaches a method of growing your story from a basic idea to a detailed list of plot “threads”—which suited me perfectly, because I need to know what happens next before I start writing. Even back in high school, writing essays in English class, I always had to have the last sentence in mind before I started—then I’d write to that point.
At about the same time, I discovered Todd Klick’s screenwriting book, Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know. I combine Suzanne’s plot threads with Todd’s story beats, and away I go!
JSC: If you had the opportunity to live one year of your life over again, which year would you choose, and why?
EJ: I think I would choose the first year after the birth of my twin sons—not because it was easy (they didn’t sleep through the night until they were fifteen months old), but because I can’t remember it! Between being sleep-deprived and having to go back to work two and a half weeks after they were born, I probably could have passed for an extra in The Walking Dead.
JSC: What are you working on now, and when can we expect it?
EJ: As I mentioned, I’m working on a revised version of Northern Light (which will probably get a different title) and its sequel, Tested in Fire. I believe the plan is to release them within about six weeks of each other in the vicinity of February/March/April of 2018.
And now for EJ’s new book: Bad Boy’s Bard:
As far as rock star Gareth Kendrick, the last true bard in Faerie, is concerned, the only good Unseelie is . . . well . . . there’s no such thing. Two centuries ago, an Unseelie lord abducted Gareth’s human lover, Niall, and Gareth has neither forgotten nor forgiven.
Niall O’Tierney, half-human son of the Unseelie King, had never lost a wager until the day he swore to rid the Seelie court of its bard. That bet cost him everything: his freedom, his family—and his heart. When he’s suddenly face-to-face with Gareth at the ceremony to join the Seelie and Unseelie realms, Niall does the only thing inhumanly possible: he fakes amnesia. Not his finest hour, perhaps, but he never revealed his Unseelie heritage, and to tell the truth now would be to risk Gareth’s revulsion—far harder to bear than two hundred years of imprisonment.
Then a new threat to Gareth’s life arises, and he and Niall stage a mad escape into the Outer World, only to discover the fate of all fae resting on their shoulders. But before they can save the realm, they have to tackle something really tough: mending their own broken relationship.
“Niall. Do you know how long I’ve been searching for you?”
At the sound of his brother’s impossibly deep voice, Niall O’Tierney jumped to his feet, knocking over his stool.
Eamon advanced into Niall’s quarters, his broad shoulders barely clearing the door. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“You didn’t.” But jumping to attention when he was addressed was a hard habit to break. “What brings you to my little corner? Shouldn’t you be getting ready for your wedding?”
“That’s why I’m here.” Eamon eyed the fire roaring in the hearth. “How you can suffer through this heat is more than I can fathom.”
Niall righted the stool. “Heat? My dear brother, compared to what I’m used to, your Keep is positively arctic.”
Eamon’s forehead wrinkled in concern. “I’m sorry. I should have—”
“It’s all right. You needn’t treat me like an invalid.” Even if I am one. “Don’t forget, I’ve survived a night drinking with the duergar. And that involved shots of fermented dragon bile infused with crushed holly berries.”
Eamon smiled, shaking his head. “How you could stomach that—”
“Oi. It was a wager, all right? Besides, it netted me a boon. I’ll call it in one day.”
Eamon’s smile widened. “No wonder they’re so nervous around you. I’d never thought duergar capable of anxiety.”
Niall shrugged. “Just takes the right leverage.” Niall had always known how to apply it.
“Yes. Well.” Eamon cleared his throat. “There are several issues that we must discuss before the Convergence ceremonies. Some things that might . . .” He grimaced. “Disturb you. I wish you to be prepared.”
Niall bowed his head. “You needn’t ask, Your Highness. I appreciate the consideration.”
“Ah, give over, Niall. You don’t need to address me that way. We’re brothers.”
“Yes, and you’re the King by Faerie’s acclamation, even though you’re putting off official coronation until after the Convergence. We wouldn’t want to scandalize the court by an unseemly display of informality.”
“You mean we wouldn’t want to give anyone else the chance for insolence.”
“That too. I’m surprised the whole court didn’t forget that Tiarnach had any sons at all, let alone two of them.”
“All the more reason for us to present a united front. Tonight is a critical juncture. If we—”
A startled cheep from the doorway made them both turn. Peadar, a brownie who’d been one of Niall’s staunchest allies for most of his life, cringed at the threshold, his arms full of velvet and fur. “Your pardon, Majesty, Highness. For the interruption. I bring Prince Niall’s clothing for the feast and the ceremony.”
Despite the reforms Eamon had already put in place after deposing their father, the lesser fae on the Keep staff who’d toiled under the old King couldn’t make the transition to the more lenient regime overnight. They still instinctively expected a blow at every transgression, no matter how small.
Niall could relate. Thanks to his own punishment at Tiarnach’s hands, he had the same reaction himself.
He strode across the room and took the bundle of clothing from Peadar’s arms. “Please don’t call me Highness. I’m not a prince.” Not anymore.
Peadar looked down his long nose. “Those as act like a true prince are treated as one. Highness.” He bobbed his head at Eamon and scurried out.
Niall returned to the hearth where his brother was waiting. “I’m sorry. What did you want to discuss?”
“Do you recall the Seelie traitor we left in the underworld along with Father when we rescued you?”
“You mean the Daoine Sidhe—the one-handed one, who spewed such invective when you removed his mute curse?”
“The very same.” Eamon scowled. “He was Caitrìona’s—that is, the Queen’s—former Consort until he tried to usurp her throne.”
Niall chuckled, his laugh still sounding like an unoiled hinge, since he’d had so little opportunity for amusement in the last two centuries. “Jealousy doesn’t become you, Your Majesty.”
“I told you not to call me that.”
“Is that an order?”
Eamon sighed. “Of course not. But I want to be your friend again, Niall, not your sovereign. I’ve missed you.”
And here I’ve been acting like a typical self-absorbed Unseelie arsehole. “Forgive me, Eamon. I missed you too, and I’ve never even asked. What were you doing during my unfortunate incarceration? Finding new and creative ways to make Tiarnach’s life miserable?”
“No. I . . . I spent it in exile. I returned the same night you did.”
Niall goggled at him. “What? Why have you never told me this?”
“When have I had the opportunity?” Eamon’s voice took on an exasperated edge. “You’ve spoken barely a word to me in the entire two weeks since your release. You dodge me, hiding here in your quarters, or down in the kitchen, huddled by the fire, surrounded by lesser fae who regard me like I might suddenly turn into Father and dash their brains out against the hearth.”
“So you’re telling me Tiarnach got rid of us both? Was it . . . was it my fault?”
“In a way . . .”
“Shite,” Niall muttered. “I brought nothing but misery to everyone I cared about. If I had known—”
“Peace.” Eamon held out his hand and Niall clutched it perhaps harder than he should have, but Danu’s tits, if he’d known Tiarnach would vent his fury on Eamon . . .
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Eamon squeezed Niall’s hand in return. “I don’t blame you for Father’s decision. Although he used my assistance to you as an excuse, I have no doubt he’d have found another reason to curse me in the end. He was convinced one or the other of us was plotting to usurp him.”
Niall forced a smile that was doubtless a parody of his old irreverent grin. “A rather prophetic fear, at least in your case.”
“More like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If he hadn’t been obsessed with punishing you, with killing Gareth Cynwrig—”
Niall’s belly clenched, and he dropped Eamon’s hand as if it were molten iron. “Don’t. Please.” Niall had taken the sentence Tiarnach had meted out—every stroke of the lash; every hour, every day, every year of the futile backbreaking labor. Stoking the fire, hauling piles of metal scrap from one cavern to another, working the bellows as Govannon forged weapon after weapon—only to melt them down again into scrap and leave Niall to drag it all off to the scrap room to begin the cycle again the next day. He’d taken it, and gladly, because Tiarnach, certain Niall would break and be brought to heel, had declared none but Niall would kill Gareth. Niall had clung to that, believing that as long as he remained imprisoned, Gareth’s life was safe.
“I’m not ready to talk about him.” I may never be ready. Because not two days before he’d been liberated, his back still bloody from another unscheduled flogging, he’d learned it had all been for nothing. Tiarnach had confessed gleefully that he’d grown tired of waiting and killed Gareth himself.
Niall could only hope Tiarnach had been more merciful to Gareth than he’d been to his own sons. How likely is that, you bloody great twit?
“Niall.” Eamon laid his arm across Niall’s shoulders and Niall flinched, his back no more fully healed from that last beating than his heart had healed from Tiarnach’s final blow. Eamon dropped his arm. “I’m sorry. I thought—now that you’re back in Faerie, haven’t you recovered yet?”
“When the whip is wielded by a god, my brother, not even a fae royal can heal the wounds.”
“I never thought Govannon was so very cruel.”
“He’s not, at least not purposely. But he’s neither judge nor jury—only the jailer, and indifferent to anything but atoning for his own guilt. Once Tiarnach condemned me, Govannon’s duty was to carry out the sentence. So he did.”
Eamon closed his eyes, his face contorting with pain. “Believe me, if I had known what Father had planned, I would have done everything in my power to dissuade him.”
“Your belief in the power of words is touching, but nobody has ever convinced Tiarnach to change his mind. To do so would be to admit he was wrong in the first place. Inconceivable.”
“I was fully aware of Father’s ruthlessness, but I never imagined he’d take leave of his reason so completely.”
Niall gripped Eamon’s forearm. “It’s done. In the past. Leave it and tell me what’s got you worried about the future.”
“Very well. According to Fionbarr, we need—”
“He’s First Mage now, the primary architect of the Convergence spell. He says that in order for the Convergence to succeed, all fae—and no one else—must be present, inside the gates, when the spell takes effect. That means both Father and Rodric Luchullain must be brought into the Keep from the forges.”
Niall shivered. Once again under the same roof as the man who was unfortunately his father? I’ll bear it. I must. “Will I need to be present then, or share the room with him?”
“No. I’ll make sure you’re advised well in advance, and Fionbarr has orders to take them to the dungeons directly. They’re shackled with a druid-made chain, and Fionbarr will be escorting them, along with a full cadre of guards.”
“Very well. Is there anything else?”
Eamon ducked his head, looking as shamefaced as six feet eight inches of solid muscle could. “The procession from the Keep to the Stone Circle will leave soon after the feast. Caitrìona’s entourage will leave her pavilion in the Seelie realm at the same time.”
“A parade.” Niall applauded slowly. “How festive.”
“I’m afraid you must be part of it, Niall. I’d spare you if I could, but your presence is necessary for the spell. Also . . .” Eamon’s gaze dropped to his feet. “I would ask you to stand by me at my handfasting.”
Ah, shite. How could he refuse? “Of course. But I warn you—I’ll not be able to stomach the feast. You’re on your own there.”
“I suspected as much.” Eamon withdrew a small velvet bag from his belt pouch. “I want you to have this.”
Niall took it, hesitant to look inside, but by the weight and size, the bag held an item not much bigger than his thumbnail. “What is it?”
“Fionbarr calls is a binding stone. Caitrìona has the mate to it. We’ll offer them to him on the altar as the final part of the Convergence spell.”
Niall thrust the bag back. “Then you keep it.”
Eamon closed his fist over Niall’s. “No. You’ve been disregarded in Faerie almost since your birth because of Father’s attitude and court politics.” Eamon released Niall’s hand and smiled wryly. “Your own antics didn’t help, of course. Baiting the trows with enchanted dice? You were lucky to escape with your head.”
Niall shrugged, then winced at the chafe of his shirt on his back. “I was in no danger. They were too busy trying to cheat each other to wonder why I won every third throw.”
“Nevertheless, I want you to be part of this new Faerie. We’re so few now, where once we were many. All fae should feel welcome: Unseelie, Seelie, greater, lesser, Scots, Irish, Welsh—and whatever of the Cornish, Manx, and Bretons we can find. You’re somewhat of a hero to the lesser fae, you know.”
“Me? I never did anything special.”
“No? As I recall, the incident with the trows involved a pack who’d attacked a bauchan den. And somehow the courtiers who lost most disastrously at your famous card parties were the ones who were most churlish to the Keep’s staff.”
Niall shifted uneasily. He hadn’t realized he’d been quite so transparent in his targets. “Those arseholes simply thought they were better players than they actually were.”
“Niall. Accept it. You were treated as an outsider your whole life, and I know it hurt you. I don’t blame you for your rebellion. In fact, I envied your courage at the same time I despaired of your recklessness. I’d never have dared oppose and flaunt our Father’s will as you did.”
Niall held up his abraded wrists. “Much good it did me in the end.”
Eamon grasped his biceps. “I want you to be a part of this ceremony. Integral to it. Like it or not, you’re the standard bearer for the disenfranchised.”
“So if I can be brought back into the fold, there’s hope for anyone?” Niall couldn’t help the scorn in his tone.
“Think of it this way—if you refuse, will all who look to you as a champion believe that the new order will be as corrupt, as rigid, as the old? Do this for me, Niall, please. Do this for Peadar and Heilyn and all the other lesser fae who look to you for fair treatment.”
Niall took a deep breath. As little as he wanted to plunge back into politics, how could he refuse Eamon this simple request? It was little enough.
Eamon, however, had done the impossible—forged alliances between natural enemies, defeated his own curse, deposed Tiarnach—and won the Seelie Queen as his mate. Yet the first thing he’d done afterward had been to release Niall from captivity.
A public gesture in support of his brother and the Queen. What could it hurt? He could always hide out again afterward.
“Very well. What must I do?”
“Fionbarr will call for the stones at the proper time in the ceremony. You only need to come forward then and hand this one to me. Stand next to me during the handfasting.”
“Will Caitrìona have someone at her side as well?”
“She will, but not family. Her champions, Lord Cynwrig and Lord Maldwyn.”
Niall flinched and turned away, staring out the narrow embrasure at the forest beyond the Keep. Gareth’s brothers. He’d never met them, but he’d heard of them. They couldn’t have taken the news of Gareth’s death well, yet they’d still chosen to take part in the ceremony. They’d know about Gareth’s life in the years I lost—how he filled his days, what made him smile, his music . . . If Niall’s heart weren’t still so raw from the loss, and if he weren’t certain they’d hate him for his betrayal, he’d beg them for the tales.
“Have you studied the documents I gave you? The details of the Convergence spell?”
“A bit.” Niall glanced guiltily at the rolls of parchment on his table. “There are a lot of them.”
“Yes, because it’s a very complicated spell. I’d value your opinion.”
“Me? But I’m not a mage.”
“No, but you’re clever, far cleverer than me. That cleverness is something Caitrìona and I desperately need in the combined court. She has her trusted advisors in the Cynwrig brothers. I have only you.”
Niall shifted uneasily from foot to foot. “Surely Fionbarr—”
Eamon waved one giant hand. “Fionbarr is interested in the Convergence only as a magical puzzle. He has no real allegiance to me, or to anything other than his own study of magic.”
That raised the hair on Niall’s neck. “Perhaps that is something you should worry about. A man with power but no loyalties is more dangerous than a known enemy.”
“You see?” Eamon said heartily. “Again, you show how much I need you.”
“Nonsense. Besides, until I’ve recovered fully, I’m of no real use to you—no better than a human, like my mother. There are enough at our own court who never considered me a fit prince for that reason alone. If you couple that with my reputation?” Some twist in Niall’s half-human heritage had given him the ability to discern the crack in another’s character, the flaw that when stressed would cause them to shatter. And once he’d seen it, he couldn’t resist applying the necessary pressure. It hadn’t made him popular. “Do you think they’ll accept me in your . . . what do you call it? Administration, like the Outer World governments call it?”
“They’ll have to learn.”
Really, Eamon? Are you still so naïve? “But that’s the point. They may not be able to. Not without help. I can accept change because I’m half-human. True fae might take more persuasion.”
“You’re a true fae, and I’ll challenge any who say different. Besides, who better than you to persuade? You persuaded the last Seelie bard into your bed.”
Niall froze, hands fisting in the folds of his cloak. “How dare you, Eamon? How dare you?”
Eamon’s perfect brow puckered. “What do you mean? You did, just as you said you would, then defied Father to keep him.”
“And that got me chained in the forges for two hundred years. And Tiarnach killed Gareth anyway.”
Eamon blinked, then pity flickered across his face. “Oh my dear. I didn’t realize— Gareth isn’t dead.”
Niall staggered back until he stumbled against the stool, his heart knifing sideways in a painful thump. “Not . . . not dead?” He could barely force the words out of a mouth gone dry as bone dust. “Don’t toy with me, Eamon. Please.”
“I would never joke about such a thing. He’s alive. In fact, he’ll be here tonight.”
Niall’s knees gave out and he collapsed, missing the stool completely and falling on his arse, uncertain whether the sounds tearing from his throat were hysterical laughter or racking sobs.
E.J. Russell holds a BA and an MFA in theater, so naturally she’s spent the last three decades as a financial manager, database designer, and business-intelligence consultant. After her twin sons left for college and she no longer spent half her waking hours ferrying them to dance class, she returned to her childhood love of writing fiction. Now she wonders why she ever thought an empty nest meant leisure.
E.J. lives in rural Oregon with her curmudgeonly husband, the only man on the planet who cares less about sports than she does. She enjoys visits from her wonderful adult children, and indulges in good books, red wine, and the occasional hyperbole.