Bonjour Chers Lecteurs ! I have a very special surprise for you today, because for the first time ever on “Forty, C’est Fantastique” I have the pleasure of doing an “Author Interview.” Today I have a Q & A with author Celine Jeanjean, who is set to release her very first novel on July 27th. (But you can pre-order it now!! 🙂 ) I “met” Celine through the “A to Z Blogging Challenge” last year, and have enjoyed her blog very much because she is an outstanding storyteller! Consequently I was thrilled when she asked if I would read and review her first novel. I fell in love with her fictional world and characters, and asked if she’d be willing to do a Q&A for me, and I am very pleased that she agreed! I haven’t done a book review in ages, not since college, but I enjoyed doing it 🙂
If you can sit on a roof somewhere, I think that would be a great place to delve into “The Viper and the Urchin”, an adventure by budding author Celine Jeanjean, set in the gritty, steampunk-type world of Damsport.
Two disparate personalities, together in an uneasy alliance, each with secrets, each both stronger and weaker than they seem, a hemophobic assassin and a small but streetwise urchin girl with a desire to be a hero swordswoman. Having no resources with which to achieve her dream, Rory’s discovery of the Viper’s weakness allowed her the leverage she needed to force him to become her teacher. Together they embarked on an unexpected adventure where they both had to face their fears and their desires, their heroes and their enemies, with surprising results.
In the prologue and the first chapter, I learned enough about the two titular characters to keep me reading for the better part of an evening just to find out how they’d get together. In other words, I couldn’t stop reading! Luckily for me, I was on a relaxing vacation weekend where that sort of thing is completely acceptable!
The two main characters were completely engaging, and I really enjoyed unfolding their backgrounds and discovering their secrets, especially Longinus, the Viper. I loved all the characters, but one of my favorite “non-central” characters (who I really hope to read more and more about in subsequent books!) was Rafe, one of the official guards who took a special interest in Rory.
The assassin-spy action in the story is fast-paced and exciting, but at the same time, Celine has managed to weave in the personal stories of her characters’ journeys of self-discovery, facing their fears and their temptations, and finding out how to be real-life heroes despite their flaws.
The end of the story just left me wanting to know what happens next! I would say this is a great story for those who love adventure stories and unlikely pairs and who don’t mind waiting for the next book! I think Celine’s first novel is a stunning beginning to a very enjoyable series!
So… Allons-y !
–>Bonjour Celine! For my readers who don’t already frequent your blog, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m French but I grew up in the UK, and I now live in Hong Kong with my husband, our dog, and two cats.
I’ve worn a lot of hats in my time, ranging from working in Finance and as Actuary to designing diamond jewellery for a bespoke diamond jeweler, but as it turns out telling stories is what makes me the happiest by far. The Viper and the Urchin is my first book – the first of many!
–> I had the great fortune to become acquainted with you through your blog. I know that more and more authors are using the blogging platform for various reasons. I love the stories you tell on your blog, but of course I understand when you leave those aside for working on your novels. In your opinion, what is the benefit of a blog to an author? In what ways has blogging helped or hindered your life as a writer?
Blogging has definitely been a huge help for me as a writer. I’ve met wonderful people through my blog (case in point!) and have slowly built a wonderful network of fellow bloggers. The support I’ve found within the blogging community has really helped boost me along the rickety path that is writing and publishing a book. It can also be a great way to exercise those writing muscles without the pressure of the blank novel page, and it can really help hone your writing voice.
Of course nothing is only positive. Blogging does take up a lot of time and it’s a distraction. I’ve found that if I’m writing new material for a novel I can’t be as active on the blogging front as I would like to be. It can also be a dangerous excuse for procrastination. It’s very easy to convince yourself that blogging is technically ‘work’, and that it’s therefore ok to be blogging instead of writing that difficult scene. So I have to take enforced blogging breaks every so often to get the writing done.
–> I understand that The Viper and the Urchin is your first published novel, hopefully just the first of many! Can you share some of the challenges you faced in getting your book published?
One of the hardest things I had to do was decide how to publish The Viper and the Urchin. The two main options open to authors these days (traditional publishing and independent publishing) both have pros and cons. I spent weeks agonizing over what would be the right decision, terrified I would make the wrong choice and harm my book or my writing career in some way.
In the end I tried querying a few agents to see what that would be like, and quickly realized that indie publishing was going to be the path for me. Since making that decision I’ve faced a number of challenges (whether working out how to format ebooks and print books, or navigating the Amazon back end) but they’ve all been very enjoyable challenges, because I know they’re pushing my book forward and growing my career.
–> Would you share a bit of your writing process with us? Do you use outlines, storyboards, drawings? Do you have any “writerly” rituals that you’d be willing to share?
With The Viper and the Urchin, the process was quite different from how I normally write. I was reading a book that featured the perfect assassin: an effective killer who always got everything right and figured everything out before everyone else; he was cool, dark, and handsome, seducing every woman that crossed his path… and I was bored stiff reading the story. I set the book aside, wondering, as a writer, what flaw I would add to such a perfect character to make him more interesting to me.
I came up with the idea of an assassin who is afraid of blood, and a couple of hours later I had written a short story which was basically Rory and Longinus meeting, and Rory blackmailing him. Once I had decided to turn that into a novel, I simply worked out who the antagonist would be, what the midpoint was, as well as the ending, and off I started writing.
I don’t normally go for such a free approach but it worked in this case. It does mean that I took a lot of wrong turns, wrote myself into some dead-ends that I had to back out of, and that by the time I was working on the second draft, I had quite a lot of work to do on the structure of the story. I actually turned away from digital for that phase, using coloured post-its to symbolize scenes featuring different characters, writing one line about the scene on each post-it. They all went on the wall and I moved them around until I got to something I was happy with.
As far as rituals, go, the only one I have is that I write with a single song playing on loop, and I listen to it through headphones. For whatever reason that’s a very efficient way to get myself in the zone. The song that works best for this is Creep by Radiohead. I do sometimes worry a little about what it means that I write best to such depressing music – but since it works I don’t question it too much. When I get to a point where I can’t bear to listen to it anymore, Ghostwriter by RJD2, and Price Tag by Jessie J are my backups.
–> The Viper and the Urchin is set in an unusual world, with a distinctive “steampunk” vibe. Are you a fan of this genre? Which genre of book do you enjoy reading the most?
I’m a big fan of Steampunk although I discovered the genre quite recently. Steampunk lends itself perfectly to the blending of science-fiction and fantasy, which I really like. I also love the aesthetic of it and the weird and wonderful machinery.
I read very widely and eclectically. Partly because it suits my tastes, and partly because it’s important for me in terms of growing and learning as a writer. The genre I read the most in, though, is anything that falls under the big Fantasy umbrella. And by that I mean anything with a speculative element – from sci-fi to alternate world historical fiction. I’m also very partial to thrillers and historical fiction in general, and I’m in a real Victorian Gothic phase at the moment: all I seem to want to read are classic Victorian Gothic novels.
–> Are there any particular authors or books or movies that inspired you while writing your book?
I don’t think you’ll see those influences in any measurable way – nor would I want to imply that my writing is anywhere close to these literary titans, but Charles Dickens, Terry Pratchett, P.D Wodehouse, Catherynne Valente and China Mieville have all influenced me (and I read them all as I was working on The Viper and the Urchin)
–> What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Reading and watching films is right at the top of that list! I also love to go hiking with my husband and our dog Poppy, although sadly, now that it’s summer in Hong Kong it’s too hot for Poppy.
–> I loved the description of how Damsport is laid out. What was your inspiration for the clock/spiderweb?
I came up with the idea of Damsport being a rounded peninsula, attached to the mainland by a narrow strip of land, and I immediately thought it would be fun to have the main thoroughfares laid out like the hours on a clock face as a little homage to Steampunk, since clockwork tends to feature heavily in Steampunk novels.
I did have to consider the practicalities of only having twelve thoroughfares in a large city (the other streets are little more than narrow, twisting lanes), so I came up with the idea of the traversals. They’re also main roads, but they trace concentric circles around the Great Bazaar (the centre of the city), so that from high above the city looks like a spider’s web. Part of this was because I liked the aesthetic of it, and part of it was because I thought it reflected the character of the city: it’s very busy, swarming with people, but there’s also a predatory and harsh side to it.
–> You intrigued me when you wrote, “Every cat in the Damsport cemetery was voiceless and only appeared at night. Some said they were the spirits of the dead, while others said that they guarded the dead and to touch them meant touching the Other Side.” Will we get to find out more about these cats in the future?
I definitely plan to revisit them in later books, although for now book 2 doesn’t have much to do with the cemetery.
Interestingly what gave me the idea for the cats was a walk through a cemetery in Tokyo (I have a real thing for cemeteries.) I came across a few large cats who looked as hostile as most cats do, but what really struck me about them was how silently they moved between the tombs. It didn’t take me long to put a fantasy spin on them and add them to my story.
–> Your character Longinus seems to have a writer’s heart, and stops often as he goes about his life to record “good lines.” Do you do this in your own life?
I do – although not in the same narcissistic way as Longinus! I’m a very all or nothing person, so when I work on a project I become obsessed with it. I think about it all the time, to the point that I have been known to drift out of conversations, both while others are talking, and more embarrassingly while I myself am talking! I’ve found that if I have an idea, I have to write it down immediately or I forget it. Cue more inappropriate social behavior as not only do I drift out of conversations, but then I also take out my phone and type myself a note on it.
I also leave myself voice memos as I hike, as that tends to be my best time for inspiration – something about doing a physical activity leaves my mind free to roam. Making sense of my notes later is always a nightmare because while I record the voice memo I’m inevitably wheezing with all the grace of an asthmatic bulldog.
–> You have a description in your book of the most amazing coffee that your two characters shared. I have to ask, is this based on a real drink, and is the contraption that they use to make it something you imagined, or something you have (I hope!) experienced somewhere?
Sadly it’s all fictional! I hate coffee. But in doing research to help me get the feel of Damsport right, I came across a book that spoke of the rise in popularity of coffee houses in Victorian London. I liked the idea of going for something different from the taverns and inns so ubiquitous in Fantasy novels. Since The Viper and the Urchin isn’t set in our world, it’s the perfect excuse to have fun and take something mundane like a cup of coffee and turn it into something a bit more magical. I spent a day with a notebook, scratching out terrible drawings as I tried to figure out how to make drinking coffee interesting.
–> Do you see yourself as having particular similarities to any of the characters in the book? Is there a particular character that you love writing about the most?
There will be bits of me in every character since I wrote them, but I probably have most in common with Longinus and Rory. Same as Longinus I tend to tell myself stories, sometimes stories of my own life – as he does. I used to do this more as a child – now I’ve got too many other stories to tell, and they’re much more interesting than my own life! Thankfully that’s where the resemblance ends – I certainly don’t take myself as seriously as he does, and I hope I’m a hell of a lot more humble!
Rory’s a very positive person and she picks herself up and keeps going irrespective of how bad things get. Luckily I’ve never had to contend with as difficult a life and childhood as she has, but I think that tendency to stay positive, and to continue on even if things don’t go according to plan is something I share with her.
As far as a character I loved to write – Longinus is an obvious answer. I had such fun, writing him and all his quirks. Another one that I love writing is Cruikshank simply because I love the idea of a cigar-smoking, muscular female machinist, with a penchant for tawdry romances. She’s also very kind and caring which I like about her a lot.
–> What part of the book was your favorite to write, and why?
My favourite writing moment was describing the Wet Market, which is part of the Great Bazaar at the centre of Damsport. It’s heavily inspired by the Wet Markets of Hong Kong, and I had the best time researching that moment. I strolled through a large Wet Market and paid attention to what was going on around me, as well as to my senses. Finding a way to convey that in words was tricky at first but it was a challenge I really enjoyed.
–> What has been the toughest criticism you have received as an author? What has been the greatest compliment?
Someone once told me that a story I’d written was boring. It was as part of a critique group, and the person’s entire feedback to me was ‘your story is boring’. I was devastated. Conversely, the greatest compliment I’ve received is anyone telling me they’ve enjoyed a story I wrote, and were left wanting more.
At the end of the day I write stories to entertain, which is part of why I like to write stories based in fictional worlds: I want to whisk the reader far away from all the troubles and realities of their day to day lives, and take them to somewhere magical and exotic. The greatest compliment for me would be to see someone reading my book and enjoying themselves while on their commute to work, or something like that. It would be amazing to know that even if that person has a terrible day, I got to make them happy for a little while.
On the critical side, I’d prefer someone telling me they didn’t like my book, or actively disliked my characters, than to find it boring. As in love, so in writing: indifference is a killer.
–> Is there anything you’d like to say to your readers about the book?
I just hope you have as much fun reading this as I had writing it. And thank you for reading. Writers would be nothing without readers, so anyone picking up my book and reading it is a very special thing, and it means a lot to me!
–> I really loved reading about Rafe. Will we see a lot more of him in the next book?
Why thank you, I’m so glad you liked him! Yes we will see more of him in book 2. I can’t say much more without spoiling some of the story, but he will have a bigger role. He’s going to become more prominent as the series evolves and we’ll gradually get to find out more about him.
–> Speaking of the next book, when can we expect to be able to find out what happens next?
I’m working on it at the moment and I hope to have it published by the end of the year / early next year – so stay tuned! It’s going to be called The Black Orchid.
–> Je vois que tu es Française. Est-ce que tu traduiras ton livre en français? Penses-tu qu’il y a des lecteurs français qui voudraient lire “La Vipère et la…” quoi, “la gamine des rues ?” en français ? (Désolée, je ne suis pas traductrice ! Quelle est la bonne traduction du titre ? )
Malheureusement je ne pourrais pas traduire mon livre en Français – ou plutôt, s’il y a un jour une traduction en Français, ca ne sera pas moi qui la ferai. Je n’ai jamais pu bien écrire à la fois en Français et en Anglais. C’est pareil quand je parle: une langue domine toujours l’autre. J’ai pris la décision il y a des années de me concentrer sur l’Anglais, et donc je ne lis et n’écris plus qu’en Anglais. Le résultat (prévisible !) est que mon Français a beaucoup perdu, et est maintenant devenu catastrophique.
J’espère qu’il y aura des lecteurs français intéressés par mon livre! Si The Viper and the Urchin marche bien en Anglais je n’exclus pas de le faire traduire, si ce n’est que pour mes grands-parents qui ne parlent pas bien Anglais. Je n’ai pas encore vraiment pensé au titre – peut être La Vipère et la Gamine, ou bien L’Assassin et la Petite Gavroche.
–> Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? (Yeah, I know, cliché question, but interesting nonetheless:-) )
I’d say write as often as you can. Stephen King famously said that it takes a million words to master the craft of writing. So write as much as possible to get through those million words as quick as you can and to the good stuff that lies beyond.
Then read as much and as widely as possible. It’s good to know the genre you write in, but I’ve found that I’ve grown more as a writer from reading quality books from a wide range of genres, and from various cultures and backgrounds. I like to think of imagination and creativity as a well – if you only put one kind of thing in it, then when you go dip your bucket you’ll only get that specific thing out. But if you put all kinds of things in your creative well, they get to mix together and your bucket will come out full of much richer, interesting stuff.
I’d also cut the word ‘aspiring’. It’s the hardest thing I did when I started writing seriously, and it took me a long time get my head around it. The reality is that if you write, you’re a writer. It doesn’t mean you’re a published writer, it might not mean that you’re a good writer yet, but you are a writer. Telling yourself that and believing it is incredibly empowering, and the more seriously you take yourself as a writer, the more chance you have of actually writing and finishing a book you’re proud of.
Finally, I’d say reach out to other writers. Support, advice, and help from fellow writers is invaluable when you’re stuck in the mire of that first draft and you can’t see how you’ll ever be able to make a decent book out of the torrent of stuff you’ve spewed out onto the page. Writers are friendly bunch, and so far all the writers I’ve reached out to have been incredibly friendly and ready to help.
Et…Voilà ! Thank you so much, Celine, for answering these questions! I love to share books that I enjoy, and I really hope that anyone who stops by my blog will be inspired to discover this one! I had a lot of fun with this post, and it makes me realize that I’d love to highlight some other books that I have discovered because of “authors who blog.” I think I should make a habit of it 🙂
Being Damsport’s most elegant assassin is hard work. There’s tailoring to consider, devilish poisons to concoct, secret identities to maintain… But most importantly, Longinus has to keep his fear of blood hidden or his reputation will be ruined. So, when a scrawny urchin girl threatens to expose his phobia unless he teaches her swordsmanship, he has no choice but to comply.
It doesn’t take long for Rory to realise that her new trainer has more eccentricities than she has fleas. But she’ll put up with anything, no matter how frustrating, to become a swordswoman like her childhood hero.
What she’s not prepared for is a copycat assassin who seeks to replace Longinus, and who hires Rory’s old partner in crime to do away with her, as well. Rory and Longinus must set their differences aside and try to work together if they’re to stop the copycat. But darker forces than they realise are at play, and with time running out, the unlikely duo find themselves the last line of defence against a powerful enemy who seeks to bring Damsport to its knees.