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: Warren Rochelle lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. He retired from teaching English at the University of Mary Washington in 2020. His short fiction and poetry have been published in such journals and anthologies as Icarus, North Carolina Literary Review, Forbidden Lines, Aboriginal Science Fiction, Collective Fallout, Queer Fish 2, Empty Oaks, Quantum Fairy Tales, Migration, The Silver Gryphon, Jaelle Her Book, Colonnades, and Graffiti, as well as the Asheville Poetry Review, GW Magazine, Crucible, The Charlotte Poetry Review, and Romance and Beyond. His short story, “The Golden Boy,” was a finalist for the 2004 Spectrum Award for Short Fiction.
Rochelle is the author of five novels. The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010),were all published by Golden Gryphon Press. The Werewolf and His Boy, originally published by Samhain Publishing in September 2016, was re-released from JMS Books in August 2020. His fifth novel, In Light’s Shadow, was published by JMS Books in September 2022. His first story collection, The Wicked Stepbrother and Other Stories was published by JMS Books in September 2020. His second collection, To Bring Him Home and Other Tales, was published in September 2021, by JMS Books.
A stand-alone story, “Seagulls,” was released by JMS Books in September 2021.
A second stand-alone story, “Susurrus,” was published by JMS Books in November 2022.
Thanks so much, Warren, 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?
Warren Rochelle: I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was eight years old, in the third grade. I had just read The Chronicles of Narnia and had fallen in love. Discovering I was good at writing was an evolutionary process. Teacher affirmations growing up were a vital part of the process. They told me I was good at it in the grades I received and their comments. Winning school writing contests reinforced their affirmations. A Scholastic Honorable Mention for a long poem about the trials and tribulations of a half-alien, half-human boy, was one such affirmation. Publications provided affirmation as well. I had poems and short stories published in my school creative writing magazine, Different Drummer and poetry in Cellar Door, the UNC-Chapel undergraduate journal. Yes, I still have copies of both!
I think the affirmation that clinched it came from my freshman creative writing teacher, Doris Betts. It wasn’t that she told me I was good at it, but rather that she took me seriously. I was a “fellow writer.”
I still treasure what she wrote in the copies of her novels I dutifully bought at the campus bookstore and the Intimate Bookshop in downtown Chapel Hill. Her comments including such statements as I had a “promising future” and “doubtless [I would be] signing my own novels one of these days.”
JSC: If you could sit down with one other writer, living or dead, who would you choose, and what would you ask them?
WR: In my answer to the question about when I did know I wanted to write and when did I discover I was good at it, I found myself talking about my freshman creative writing professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, Doris Betts. I would choose her for a writer I would sit down with. What would I ask her? Well, I think I would first show her The Werewolf and His Boy, which is dedicated to her and my husband. I made a promise years ago I would dedicate a book to her; sadly, she died before I could share the dedication with her. After sharing other publications, I think I would ask her this question: the novel left unfinished when she died, what is it about, what story is being told in this book? I would ask what did she think needed to be revised so it could be published?
JSC: Do you ever base your characters on real people? If so, what are the pitfalls you’ve run into doing so?
WR: Not really. Okay, sort of. Some characters are sometimes inspired by real people in my life. Also, I borrow events, and shared adventures. I don’t always recognize the inspiration until the story is well under away and the particular character has been busy. I will have an epiphany: oh, this man, this woman—they’re like—oh, of course—that person. Using a shared adventure is less risky. The adventure gives a structure to a character’s adventure. The fictional is never exactly like the real one. Rather, I hope the truth of one is akin to the truth of the other.
Pitfalls? The first pitfall that comes to mind is recognition by the real person when they read the book. Is that me? Am I really like that? I’m not like that. So far, knock on wood, no one has been offended. One dear friend did say, yes, I know I can be that way. I think my general answer would be: inspiration, yes, but once on the page, the character is a person in their own right.
JSC: How long on average does it take you to write a book?
WR: On average, about a year or so. In Light’s Shadow took eighteen years to evolve from story to published novel, but this was not a continuous project. Revise, submit, revise again …. Or wait, wait, wait, before revising. The last revisions took several months before I sent it off. So, yes, mostly, a year or so.
JSC: How did you choose the topic for Susurrus?
WR: The initial topic or theme for Queer Sci Fi’s ninth annual flash fiction contest was clarity. From the four definitions given, I chose “transparent.” I wrote “Ghosts” for the contest, which requires a 300-word speculative fiction tale with LGBTQ+ characters. Theo and Russell, a married couple, were afflicted with the ghost disease, which had an unknown origin. People were slowly becoming transparent. They were turning into ghosts. Bad things happened. The story earned Honorable Mention and was published in Clarity in October 2022. I knew from the start that the ghost disease was magical in origin, but who was its creator? Why was such a disease created, to what end?
Varon Cambeul, the Royal Magician and the lover of King Aloysius, was the creator. The story changed as I explored the why and the purpose. The expanded version was about Varon and his relationship with the King. Yes, Theo and Russell got more ink, but they were no longer the only protagonists. By making two couples the protagonists, a comparison between them is inevitable. I hope such a comparison is illuminating for the reader. And, as the story changed, the list of topics expanded. Magic comes with a price. Clarity remains, as Varon has to clarify to himself why he did what he did, and he has to also come to an understanding about his love affair with the king. The story becomes a tale of the risks of love, and an understanding that happiness can come with a price. Is love enough? Do things eventually become clear for Varon? And for Theo and Russell? Is redemption possible for Varon and Aloysius.
JSC: What was the hardest part of writing it?
WR: I was not expecting to have to learn anything about weaving, but that was the metaphor of Varon’s magic, a metaphor based in his childhood training in weaving by his mother. I knew next to nothing about weaving. I also had to learn something about knitting, as that is what Varon does to relax. Now, I know a little about both. I had to look up the vocabulary of weaving and learn something about fiber magic. Doing so helped me figure out a way for Varon to undo the damage he had done by constructing a curse for the King. This transformation curse produced the ghost disease, which rendered the afflicted transparent. How he undid the damage, I will leave for the reader.
As for the knitting, I asked my husband for the terminology I needed and for just enough of a description.
JSC: Are you (the main characters) happy with where your writer left you at the end? (don’t give us any spoilers).
WR: I asked this question of the four main characters, Varon Cambeul and King Aloysius, and Theo and Russell.
Varon: Am I happy where I am at the end? Yes, I am, even though to get this conclusion, I had to make a sacrifice that will, in one way or another, always haunt me.
King Aloysius: I am the King, and I have a responsibility to the Lothian people and to the Kingdom of Lothia. I had no choice as where I am at the end. Happy? Happiness is fleeting; so is love. Neither can’t be counted on, trusted, or hoped for. For a while, I was happy, I was loved. But, so be it.
Theo: Yes, I am happy, far more than I expected to be. Russell and I are together. I love him.
Russell: Theo has already said what I would say. For a little while, I privately worried (I didn’t even tell the author) that Theo wouldn’t be with me at the end. But he is. We are together. I love him so much.
JSC: Were you a voracious reader as a child?
WR: Oh, yes. What immediately came to mind when I read this question this morning was getting in trouble in third grade for reading when I should have been working. As I write this, I remembered the first time my mother took me to the public library in Chapel Hill, NC. I was in first grade. The library then was downtown and in an old white house on Franklin Street. Supposedly, the house was once owned by a certain Mrs. Greene and it was a house of ill-repute. Anyway, the library was filled to overflowing with books. On the stairs, in the bathroom. Anywhere there was a flat surface. The wooden floors creaked. I loved it.
JSC: How does the world end?
WR: I wrote one story, “Snowfall,” some years ago (revised version to be in my collection) in which the world ends when a preset timer goes off. It’s over; it’s all done. And snow begins to fall, covering in the world in a white shroud. I’ve written a few stories about the fall of civilization as we know it. Some of these stories allowed me to indulge my love of plague fiction. One plague came from biological warfare; the other, nefarious aliens.
But to answer the question. How does the world end? When we make one too many mistakes in taking care of the planet. I want to believe this won’t happen. Most days, I do.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!
WR: I’m working on two projects. First, I am about to finish Chapter 2 in the sequel to In Light’s Shadow. Six years have passed since Storm Night and Gavin is having strange dreams about Raoul. He must be alive, but where? How to get there? Torin, Gavin’s husband whom he married at the conclusion of Light, is having the same dreams. They know they have to go find him. Second, I am working on my third story collection. The particular story I am working on has the working title of “El Gran Bosque,” or maybe, “The Great Forest. It’s set on a planet with sentient trees and is the tale of star-crossed lovers.
And now for Warren’s latest book: Susurrus
Varon Cambeul has made it to the top: Royal Magician of the Kingdom of Lothia, at the right hand of the King, who is his lover. He would do anything for his beloved, but the King wants him to make a curse that slowly transforms people into ghosts. A small college town in the Far North is selected. Theo and Russell, a professor and a librarian, are among the afflicted. Their lives are completely changed. Varon has to make a cure, so the King can take credit for saving the afflicted. The people will love him at last.
Varon acts out of love for his King; he makes the curse. But the cure—each attempt fails. Can Varon undo this great wrong? Can he save Theo and Russell and the others as they turn invisible? How can he love someone who is not doing good?
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…Varon held up a sparkling square of silvery-white weaving, just big enough to cover both his hands. Much bigger, and it would have been the start of a shadow cloak, woven of shadows and moonlight and starlight, of shining green, blue, yellow, and red yarn. He had woven in the last spell; the transformation curse was ready to be released. Varon glanced at the clock on the wall by the door, its golden pendulum catching the light from the wall sconces. He could see a few stars in the open skylight over his head. The King was due at midnight. No time to go back to his weaving room and the ring loom and the rhythm which always calmed him down.
The whole time Varon worked on it, he had told himself that what would make the King happy, was good for everyone. But now, as he remembered what Mary Fee had said, he was even less sure the curse would be good for everyone, or anyone, not even in the long or short term. It was to be scattered over the town the King had chosen as the testing ground, Ciara, a small college town in the Far North Province. According to Encyclopedia Lothiana, before the college’s founding, Ciara was the market town and government and business center for the North Central District of the Far North Province surrounded by the beautiful Blue Hills, the foothills of the Far Northern Mountains. Population, between 5000-6000, not counting the college. Train service twice weekly, bus and coach, three times weekly.
A pretty place, he had been told, enough upriver from the coast and the original West Rhuvan settlements for it to have wider, tree-lined streets, at least in some in the residential neighborhoods.
Varon had never made such a curse before. He prayed to the gods it would work, and that when the time came, reversing it would be easily done.
A knock. Pause, two more knocks.
The king pushed the door open. Varon saw him standing for a moment in the doorway, looking for the source of the voice. He’s so beautiful, Varon thought. He sat at his table, surrounded by bottles and vials, and a box of flasks Above him, strings of dried herbs hanging from low beams. Behind him, he had left the cauldron hanging in the fireplace in the corner. Two bright-colored tapestries hung above the fireplace, one woven by his mother, and the other he had woven as a response to hers. Doves cooed sleepily somewhere in the ceiling beams. Candles and wall sconces were all lit. “Your Majesty, the counter curse, I haven’t finished that. I was thinking we should wait. I just need a little more time.”
The king stared him, his mouth in a thin line. “No. Release it now.”