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.
R J Theodore (she/they) is an author, graphic designer, and all-around collector of creative endeavors and hobbies. She enjoys writing about magic-infused technologies, first contact events, and bioluminescing landscapes.
Her love of SFF storytelling developed through grabbing for anything-and-everything “unicorn” as a child, but she was subverted by tales of distant solar systems when her brother introduced her to Star Trek: The Next Generation at age seven. A few years later, Sailor Moon taught her stories can have both.
Her short fiction has appeared in MetaStellar, Lightspeed, and Fireside Magazines as well as the Glitter + Ashes, Unfettered Hexes and Bridge to Elsewhere anthologies.
She lives in New England, haunted by her childhood cat. Find more information at rjtheodore.com.
Thanks so much, R J, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
R J Theodore: My mother was a writer and a huge encouragement for me to express my creative ideas, so I think I grew up writing but not really thinking about it because it was as omnipresent as breakfast and bath time. Unfortunately, late in high school, I was told I couldn’t participate in both the Talented Art program and the Talented Writing program. Since I was on my way to study art in college, it seemed like an easy choice, but now I realize it shut a door in my brain. I stopped thinking about writing.
Luckily, just because I wasn’t contemplating it doesn’t mean I stopped writing. I was a couple years out of art school before I realized that the images I created had narratives built into them—narratives I’d often even written out as part of my creative process, then left in drafts and not turned in with the final project.
Once I realized that, I also realized I enjoyed the writing more. As a graphic design major with a photography minor—two career paths rather built on the visual elements—that realization came as bit of a knock.
I still practice graphic design for both my day job and freelance, plus taking advantage of it to self-publish my own work. And I still enjoy it, but knowing how much I love writing has allowed me to really chase the stories I’d been barely scratching the edges of in my drawings or layouts.
As for being good at it, thanks to my mother’s support, I always believed I was. When I actually became good at it? No idea. But I am glad the version of Flotsam that is currently published is not its first.
There’s that bit of “wisdom” that floats around saying that a person needs to write a million words (or whatever amount) before they have “earned the right” to publish. I think I put all one million into earlier versions of the Peridot Shift. Luckily, I then put them all aside and, with the million words earned, I wrote an entirely new draft of what published as Flotsam.
JSC: How would you describe your writing style/genre?
RJT: In college, the person who is now my spouse really got me into watching movies, and I mean really got me into watching movies, and between that and my graphic art education, I think there’s a very visual aspect to what I write. I choreograph the scene in my mind as though I’m a film or stage director or as if I’m trying to leave hints for an actual director that might one day translate my writing to film.
That doesn’t mean it’s all explosions, though I do include those when the mood and scene suit me, but it does mean that I see the scene explicitly in my mind, and like to throw details in that invite the reader to join my mental theater show.
I think my language is pretty straight forward (though I stuck that word “pretty” in there where editors say “straight forward” would be not over-writing a sentence). Okay, I think my language is pretty casual, without a whole lot of flourishes. I like to attune the way I write a scene to the way the point-of-view character experiences it, which means I might write two books very differently. In illustration, I think style is what happens when you aren’t trying, and the same probably applies to writing, so I couldn’t begin to describe my actual style in terms of word choice.
As for genre, I’m consistent: I do not stick to one genre when I write. Ha! I would probably have less of a wide range of reviews if I could really adhere to a genre, but I write my stories the way they come to me and worry about the marketing later (and writing my science fiction and fantasy as though they’re the melted clocks in a Dali painting… whew, does that make me worry about the marketing!)
JSC: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
RJT: The first published work of mine was technically a poem in one of those huge collections they put students in. It was a very short poem about love, and even then, I was throwing in my SF elements, as it went for the word automaton to describe those who couldn’t understand the bad choices we make when we are obsessed with a love interest.
Within the life of “R J Theodore,” my first published work was The Bantam, released in January of 2018, as a prequel novella to kick off the Phantom Traveler series. At the time, I’d intended Phantom Traveler to be a serial, but there weren’t really great ways to run a serial online at the time. I almost wish I’d not gotten around to it until this new Kindle Vella option was available, but here we are, and I’ve since condensed the episodes into chapters and have released two out of what will be three books in a trilogy, plus an illustrated book that gives you a taste of what the serial might have been like, with journal entries detailing random stops along the long journey my characters are making toward their lost homeworld.
JSC: What do you do when you get writer’s block?
RJT: For me, writer’s block hits in the form of distraction and procrastination. I don’t even realize I have it, until I’ve spent fifty bucks on threadless shirts or planner stickers from Etsy. Reminding myself that I’m working on a first draft and nothing I write really matters for now, anyway, seems to help. Taking the importance away from what I’m doing seems to be the key. Drafts are drafts for a reason, and no one has to see them if I don’t want them to.
Unfortunately, there’s a very tenacious beast in my brain that values a clean first draft (and feeds on the fact that generally, my first drafts are pretty clean), so I battle with that sucker a lot when I’m struggling to write.
If I were a healthier person, I would probably step away from the writing and look for ways to let my background brain functions process whatever’s got me stuck: gardening, cooking, cleaning… basically doing something with my hands that takes a minimal amount of decision making so that background function can draw the processing power it needs.
I never really know if attempts to be unstuck are working until suddenly my draft is almost done.
JSC: Do you use a pseudonym? If so, why? If not, why not?
RJT: I do. At the time I started my path toward publication, I was still walking in the world under my dead name, and I knew I didn’t want that going down in the record books as my author credit. So, I took the blocks of my name and other familial pieces and created a name that sounded authorial to me (and yes, I acknowledge that it mimics a traditional genre male name, woe upon the misogyny of this industry).
It took the entirety of the past six years since I created that name before I became used to people calling me “R J” conversationally, such as in podcast interviews or on panels.
Oh, and because it’s often credit incorrectly, I will state for the record: there are no periods in the proper spelling of my pen name. R J Theodore. No periods. Two spaces. A given (taken?) name (R J) and surname (Theodore)—the J is not a middle initial.
JSC: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
RJT: This is one of those trials of being a self-publishing author. The healthiest thing for a writer, or any creative, is to ignore the reviews and keep creating. Unfortunately, when you’re involved in the promotion of your books, the chance that you find a good review you can use in the book marketing means you do have to check your reviews. And you don’t know if it’s a good review till you look at it and by then it’s too late to skip a mean one, or one that completely misunderstands what you were trying to achieve.
Sadly, a bad review is not 1:1 equal to a good review. A bad review has the power to grab a huge, jagged rock, and beat any good reviews right out of your mind. Authors who are going to be involved in the marketing of their book (and this applies to even traditionally published authors more and more lately) really must develop ways to block the bad reviews from the power to emotionally hurt us. And some days you just can’t invoke those methods, even when you’ve got them. Some days, a bad review is just going to hit you and shadow you all day. Usually, those days where you burn your tongue on your coffee, you’re late to an appointment, you chip a fingernail, or you wake up with a big red pimple in the middle of your supposed-to-be-an-adult face. Don’t read reviews on those days if you can help it.
I think for the most part, I have a marketing helmet I don when I am looking for quotes to use in my book promotion. And that marketing helmet is primarily constructed of a “fuck you, I earned my place here” attitude that has grown with time and the right mental health support methods.
And when I get a good one, I slap that glorious sucker on my website, make a marketing graphic for social media with it, and save it for the next print edition of the work.
I think my biggest struggle is believing the good reviews as much as I believe the bad ones. I’m still working on that, but it is getting easier.
JSC: What do you do if you get a brilliant idea at a bad time?
RJT: When does a brilliant idea ever come at a good time, honestly? When something hits me, as soon as I’m able (because let’s be honest: it’s always when your hands are wet or fully occupied), I write down whatever I’ve got in whatever form it’s come to me. Sometimes it’s just a phrase, sometimes it’s a bit of back-and-forth dialogue between faceless characters, sometimes it’s a setting description. Whatever I’ve got, I type it out and email it to myself. On my computer, I name a folder whatever the vague concept is (or sometimes the entire bit that came to me if it’s short), and I just leave it there and go back to what’s on my production calendar for the here and now. I’ve left ideas to grow for days, months, and even years. The thing that I eventually write with it may not be what I originally envisioned, but that’s okay.
JSC: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
RJT: I’m definitely a plotter. I find laying outline foundations for a story helps me get past those moments where I don’t know what to write next. The only time I’ll pants a writing project is for a short piece, and that’s just because it’s short and I won’t be too mad at myself if it goes sideways—or nowhere—and I have to start over.
I enjoy both methods. Letting a short piece just happen as I type and discovering it in almost the same way the eventual audience will is almost intoxicating. Planning a story scene-by-scene and laying the words in brick-by-brick is immensely satisfying, especially when it all goes as planned. I don’t think there’s a wrong way to write a story at all, there are just health and unhealthy ways to treat yourself as you go through your process.
JSC: How do you approach covers for your indie stories?
RJT: Since I outline my stories before I start to write them, I am fortunate enough to know where the plot is going as I write, which allows me to sort of put the idea of the cover on the back burner to simmer as I go, and I sprinkle little details into it as I write and note things that might be an interesting bit of visual spice, until finally I have a general idea of what elements and characters will express the story, or what will be necessary to show so that the reader has a good idea of what they’re getting into with reading my book, should they choose to.
I also try to find similar books once my first draft is done and I know where it’s going and what style my language adopted as I wrote, and what might be a good book to pair with mine if the reader wanted to stay in the same mood after. This means picking out what publishing has termed “comps”—other books to use to put an image in the customers’ heads of what they’d get from this book. I collect as many of those as I can (and as I said, I am bad at really sticking to a single genre so I’ve gotta usually search really hard to pick my comps), and then I compare all their covers. Is there a commonality that they share? What elements, color schemes, compositions feel like they express my story’s journey so that the reader knows what they’d get and what tropes to expect?
Sometimes that becomes clear, as with the updated Peridot covers, which are inspired by the Locked Tomb series, plus a recent Dune re-do cover—both combine space travel with magical elements, and both had lone figures on the covers surrounded by elements that expressed the books’ conflicts.
But sometimes, as with my Phantom Traveler series, I can’t find anything that feels right, and then I must try and figure out how to just express what the book will bring and face the music that I am going to be an anomaly on the shelf. In these cases, I create a unique cover that at least won’t promise something the books won’t deliver, and hope that another title of mine will suck the reader in so that they seek my backlist with a familiarity of my writing style, at least.
JSC: Would you rather be in a room full of snakes or a room full of spiders?
RJT: I just watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, so I already had this question in mind to consider. I’d have to go with snakes. I don’t mind a single spider, but I’m completely wigged out by centipedes, and I think a room with all those legs, even if they’re not quite waving in that centipede way, would be too much for me. I’d be terrified of the snakes, but at least I wouldn’t be envisioning centipede legs.
JSC: Star Trek or Star Wars? Why?
RJT: Both. I absolutely refuse to exist in a world where I am forced to give up either one. And I’m not talking just the originals. I demand the freedom to enjoy every entry in both series, good and bad. You can’t take that away from me.
JSC: What’s in your fridge right now?
RJT: Heavy cream, strawberries that really need to be eaten today before they get too soft, health bars I made myself, extra romaine because two people went to the store separately on the same day and each bought some, lots of celery just because I keep thinking we’re out and not checking before I get more, roast beef, pepper jack cheese, keto sandwich wraps, and almond butter, plus condiments and all the usual things.
JSC: What character gave you fits and fought against you? Did that character cause trouble because you weren’t listening and missed something important about them?
RJT: That would probably be Hankirk, the villain we love to hate and sometimes want to throw the book across the room because he’s just so Hankirk. There’s a “We Hate Hankirk” fan reader club. It’s to that point.
It was no easier to write him than it is to read him, I’m sorry. And I wanted to make him (and any character in my books) as solid a character as possible, because otherwise he’s just a mustache twisting piece of clip art, and that meant I had to spend time with him and try to figure out how his brain works and UGH, I’d take a room of spiders over him. Hopefully the ending to the series makes up for all the time we had to spend with him. He really gets raked by everyone around him in book three, before finally getting his actual due.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!
RJT: Right now, I’m working on the final revisions for Cast Off, which comes out in December and finally concludes the Peridot Shift series, which (because of its publishing path) feels like we have always lived in the Peridot Shift Production Process. I absolutely adore the final book in the series. I feel like I really had some fun moments and let some of the characters shine who were once background characters. And there’s a new airship pirate crew to meet, who Hankirk hires to fly him after Talis, and they just absolutely make his life a living hell, which is satisfying to anyone who has had to put up with Hankirk getting his way all the time.
There are other moments of secondary characters blossoming in the book, and it was so satisfying to write. I hope it’s as satisfying to read.
I also have a bunch of short stories just blooming around that I nearly forget about. The same day Salvage comes out, I have a short story publishing in Bridge to Elsewhere, an anthology about space travel and spaceships, which is just chock full of amazing fun stories. I feel really blessed to have “Gort, Cinder, and Sphinx” be a part of that one. I also have a story coming out in Lightspeed that I co-wrote with Maurice Broaddus—an experience as wonderful as you’d imagine if you know Maurice. That story is called “Singing the Ancient Out of the Dark”. Then, I think this fall, I achieve my Neon Hemlock triple crown, with my story “An Extraplanetary Capsule Lands in a Bog in Winter” which will be in their anthology, Luminescent Machinations.
This Halloween season, I’ll be relaunching Hunger and the Green, a novella that takes place elseworld on Peridot between the second and third books. It’s a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, casting the creatures and alchemy of Peridot. The novella itself has been available this whole time in print and epub, but I’ll be releasing an audio edition to remind folks to read it before Cast Off completes the trilogy in December.
Once the Peridot Shift has left my to-do list, I plan to finish off the Phantom Traveler trilogy (the third book is about two-thirds written), and if I haven’t sold the stand-alone SF novel I’ve been shopping around, I’ll self-publish that. And there’s a book I’ve been itching to write for as long as we’ve been dealing with Covid. It’s unrelated to Covid, but more related to my own health issues, things I’m obsessed with, and weird science things I’ve learned in this time.
That book is the carrot I’ve been dangling in front of myself to finally get all these other things out into the world. The way it’s structured in my head now, it could be a series, but it would be a series, not a trilogy, with each book a complete adventure. That’s a bit of a change from the Peridot Shift and Phantom Traveler (so I guess I’d better not name the series something that starts with “P”).
And now for R J’s new book: Salvage:
Peridot is headed for its second cataclysm. War has sealed borders and locked down the skies. The Five, Peridot’s alchemist gods, have seen one of their number die and another fall in their efforts to protect their world from invaders beyond the stars. Defeated and diminished, they are ignoring the prayers of their people, and the rapidly unraveling world must fend for itself.
Talis and the orphaned crew of the lost airship Wind Sabre have a plan to set things to rights, but they’re stranded on a rock far from the heart of the conflict. When an old enemy offers them a ship and a path forward, it comes with strings that will pull them further from the home they are so desperate to save.
Their broken planet has been through a lot, but if Talis and her crew can’t navigate hostile skies, shifting allegiances, and subverted governments, their enemies could claim a power that would destroy Peridot for good.
“A great installment in this exciting series!” — Laura N. Garrity
Emeranth woke to a hand over her mouth. As she tried to sit up, its owner pushed her back down. The room was dark, and she could barely see the outline of her bed’s curtains and a person leaning in over her.
“Sorry, Em. Sorry.” The voice was deep with a solid center, but it was raspy at this hushed volume.
She nodded, and the man removed his hand, allowing her to sit up. “Uncle? Why are you—”
Uncle pressed something soft and heavy into her hands. Her jacket. “We need to go. It’s not safe. I’ll tell you on the way.”
“Where are my parents?” But she did as he said, sliding out of bed and into her slippers while pulling her jacket over her nightgown. The fabric tangled around her hips and knees, and her sleeves bunched up around her elbows.
In the limited nexuslight that made it past the curtains, Uncle’s pale skin—many shades lighter than Em’s own—allowed her to see him step back toward the bedroom door. “I’ll tell you on the way. Quietly. It’s not safe.”
When an adult said things more than once, they were nervous or mad. Uncle sort of sounded both, and she obeyed with no more questions.
He led them down the hall outside her chambers. They didn’t pass anyone else. Em was even more alarmed than she had been to wake with a hand on her face. There should have been people in the corridors. Guards. Someone. The air seemed to buzz, and she thought she could make out distant shouting but couldn’t tell what direction it came from or what was being yelled. She clung tighter to Uncle.
A familiar voice sounded from very nearby. Em almost yelled in fright. Uncle stopped them before they crossed in front of a doorway that spilled lamplight across the hall. The silver fingers of his left hand reflected the meager glow as he signaled her to be still. She focused on the words coming from within the room, staring at the familiar cogs and pins of Uncle’s beautiful gearwork knuckles.
“She is nowhere to be found.” The voice was irritated. She recognized Patron Demir’s voice. He always sounded like he smelled something unpleasant.
Another voice responded, heavily accented with throaty stops, hums, and hisses. This one, too, was familiar. Familiar and terrifying. She could imagine the tall Yu’Nyun Representative of Culture even without seeing xin. “Unacceptable. You were to have taken care of this first.”
When the Yu’Nyun visitors had first arrived, Em had thought they were fascinating and pretty. They looked like living versions of the carvings airship sailors made from sirenia teeth and bones, and they walked with the kind of grace and poise the court folk tried to train into her. Their clothes were beautifully made, even with the burns and tears from the attack at Nexus. As if they were right at home in the royal court, though they looked very strange.
Lately, though, she found it hard to breathe around the aliens. She could tell everyone was trying too hard to be nice to them.
“The child must be found and secured. Search the grounds again.”
They were looking for her! When she gasped for breath, Uncle tapped one finger on his earlobe. She nodded. He backed away from the door, moving them into the shadows along the other side of the hall.
Why were they looking for her? She gripped Uncle’s arm with both hands and stayed as close as she dared without tripping him.
“She can’t have gotten far.” Patron Demir sounded like he was in trouble.
“Be sure of it. With the emperor and empress dead, she is now the legitimate ruler of the Cutter empire.”
Em stumbled. She forgot about being quiet, but as she tried to repeat the words, no sound emerged from her constricted throat.
Her parents couldn’t be dead. She had just said goodnight to them at bedtime. Maw’n sat with her as she finished her needlework, and then they talked about what they’d like for breakfast the next morning.
That seemed like a strange dream now. The alien’s voice seemed all too real. Too sharp.
Her parents were dead.
Uncle tried to pick her up—even though she was nearly fourteen years old, and a princess—to keep them moving. She wrested her arms out of his grip. His metal arm was beautiful, but the joints were fragile. A cog ground its metal teeth at her rough treatment. She didn’t stop or calm down. She had to find her friend Annie. There were killers in the palace!
She slipped away as Uncle chased after. She felt her hair snag in the joints of his fingers but didn’t care. No one else would make sure the palace servants were okay. But Annie was like a sister, and that meant she was the only family Em had left.
Uncle didn’t shout, couldn’t say a single word while hidden outside the room where the Yu’Nyun representative and Patron Demir argued. Uncle would be caught if he didn’t mind the noise of his steps.
But Em was barefoot and could run as fast as she wanted without making a sound.
She headed for the wing where Annie lived with their Breaker tutor, Catkin. Sometimes Em and Annie escaped Catkin’s lessons and hid in the palace’s secret rooms and passages to play until they got hungry and emerged to reprimands and a hot supper. If Annie knew anything was wrong, that’s where she’d be.
There were more angry voices and more shouting. Em heard Uncle calling for her. She ran down the empty halls and ducked into side rooms and around corners whenever she heard people coming.
It had to be the Yu’Nyun. She didn’t know why, but she knew it had to be. Everything had changed after they lost their ships at Nexus. Em wished they had their ships back, so they could leave Peridot and stay away from her family. Her face felt wet. She had no family left but Annie.
She didn’t get why her parents’ advisors had kept inviting the Yu’Nyun representative back. The aliens didn’t behave like other refugees. They didn’t just want help; they wanted to live at the palace and help the Cutter folk govern. Her parents had told them no, and now her parents were dead.
Em went straight for the most secret room she and Annie knew about, pulling a candelabra near a shelf, tipping an unassuming book about trade economics, and stepping on a pressure-sensitive floor tile. She winced as the stone door slid noisily back, then rushed inside and up the darkened stairwell within. She could hear Annie crying before she reached the hidden workshop above.
Beneath a table against the wall, a girl curled tightly around her knees, clutching her arms. There was enough light from the clouded windows to catch the Cutter sparkle in her warm brown skin. The sleeves of Annie’s nightgown were as wrinkled as Em’s own felt beneath her purple velvet jacket.
“Annie, come! We have to go.”
Annie wiped her face on the back of her forearm, blinking dark brown eyes. “Em, thank the winds! What’s happening?”
“We have to go.”
Annie climbed out from under the table and seized Em’s outstretched hand. Her terrified whisper came out as a hiss. “Shouldn’t we stay hidden in here?”
Uncle had given her a jacket, so he was going to get her out of the palace.
“I don’t think it’s safe anymore.”
Without giving Annie time to argue, Em hurried her down the stairs and back through the halls. She’d run off without Uncle, but she could still follow his plan. There was a back door to the garden, and if they could get outside and past the palace gates, they could hide in the city.
“Em!” Annie was shaking. “What’s happened?”
Em stopped, pulling them into a recess along the wall. They were outside the royal audience chamber, but everything that should have been familiar looked different in the shadows. The couch on which she’d spent so many idle moments waiting for Faw’n to finish his daily audiences so they could walk to dinner seemed the wrong color. The curling fern beside it looked threatening instead of frilly.
“My parents are dead.”
Annie didn’t speak. Her mouth hung open, as if her thoughts caught on the back of her tongue.
“I think they were killed.” She swallowed. “Assassinated.”