16th November 2018
Interview with Laura Laakso
Good afternoon Ms Laakso and thanks very much for your time. Your debut novel ‘Fallible Justice’ was published on 8th November. Could you tell us a little about it?
Fallible Justice is set in a version of modern-day London, where humans co-exist peacefully with magical races and where criminal verdicts given by otherworldly Heralds of Justice are infallible. The punishment for a murder committed with the aid of magic is always death. When a man is declared guilty of murder, his daughter turns to Private Investigator Yannia Wilde to prove his innocence. Yannia and her Bird Shaman apprentice Karrion have just four days to solve an impossible the case that threatens the life of their client and the very foundations of their society. Along the way, they encounter urban myths, sulky Cat Shamans and the resistance of an aristocratic class determined to prove that Wild Folk like Yannia has no place in Old London.
Fallible Justice is an urban fantasy novel. What do you think the core of good fantasy is?
Balance. Growing up, I read every single fantasy novel my local library stocked, most of them more than once. Some of those books remain fast favourites, but a lot of them were guilty of excessive worldbuilding and very two-dimensional characters. These days, with so much quality writing out there, a fantasy book has to strike a balance between plot, relatable characters and worldbuilding to stand out. That said, I think the same applies to all genres, not just fantasy.
I think one of the things that intrigues me about Falliable Justice is that it’s a fantasy book that doesn’t lean on established tropes: elf-analogue, dwarf-analogue, orc-analogue and so on. Do you think that particular vein of fantasy is all tapped out?
In a crowded marketplace, writers need to have a fresh angle on an idea or characters to stand out. Again, this applies to all genres and not just fantasy. The challenge is saying something new about elves, orcs and dwarves. I don’t know, maybe dwarves and orcs have banded together to form a mining colony on the moon and the elves want in on the actions. That could be interesting. The trick is to shift existing parameters, turn cliches on their heads and surprise the readers in some fashion. Now that self-publishing has reduced the barriers of entry, it’s harder for writers, especially debut novelists, to be noticed. They have a much better chance of doing so if they’re not re-telling tales that have been done to death already.
The idea of the Heralds of Justice sounds very novel (pardon the pun). Could you describe a little more about them and the role they play in the narrative?
Heralds of Justice are creatures from another plane, who are capable of looking into a person’s soul to determine guilt or innocence. The verdicts they deliver are infallible, thereby proving to humans that magic cannot be used to subvert the cause of justice. Yannia’s challenge in Fallible Justice is not just figuring out whether her client’s father is innocent or not, but also how a Herald could be fooled.
With the Heralds, I’d deliberately avoided using the word “celestial” as I wanted to avoid a connection with major religions. There are many powerful and otherworldly beings in the world of my making and I didn’t want to pigeonhole them. This way the reader can make their own inferences.
I think as well as being ‘fresh’, the worlds in fantasy novels have also got to be fully -realised, probably more so than other speculative genres. I suspect it’s a legacy of Tolkien's work. How did you go about making the world of Fallible Justice credible?
I’ve been asked lots of tricky questions about world-building and mostly my thoughts are along the lines of, sure, I thought it through! No, I think I accidentally stumbled onto an efficient way of world-building simply by not focusing on it too much. The original idea dictated that the Heralds of Justice had to exist side by side with modern technology. From there on, the elements of the world formed hand in hand with the plot. I needed an aristocratic class of magic users; they became Mages. I had an idea for a man whom all pigeons love; he became Yannia’s Bird Shaman apprentice. From early on, I knew I wanted Fallible Justice to be the first in a series and my ideas for future books informed the world-building in the first one.
Looking back at the process, I think it helped a great deal that I chose to set the stories in modern-day London, thereby providing myself with a solid framework for the world-building. The biggest part of that was setting the boundaries for magic. I was always clear on not wanting magic to be the solution for everything. No amount of power can cure a genetic illness or bring the dead back to life. There must always be a cost and a consequence for using magic, and actually, power and how it shapes and misshapes us has become a recurring theme in all three of the books I’ve written so far.
A publisher expressed interest after you submitted the first chapter of the novel to a competition in 2017. Could you describe how you then progressed to a full novel being published?
Serendipitous is a perfect word to describe my publication journey. I had no idea Louise was reading for the Retreat West competition last year, or even less that she’d remember me and Fallible Justice from it. Some months after I’d been chosen as a runner-up in that competition, I saw on Retreat West’s newsletter that a new indie publisher was looking for submissions. I checked out the website for Louise Walters Books and only my first novel fitted in with her guidelines. I very nearly decided against making a submission but figured that I had nothing to lose. So I pressed send and braced myself of having to wait at least a month before I heard back. Louise emailed a couple of hours later turning down my submission, but asking for Fallible Justice instead. After some further emails where she asked about the target audience and compared my writing style to that of Neil Gaiman (I’ll take that, thank you very much!), she offered me a book deal. When she did, she said I was more than good enough to try for an agent and a bigger deal, but I decided that it was more important for me to work with someone who was as passionate about my book as I am. It’s been a year since we signed the publishing contract and I haven’t regretted my decision.
Wow - what an inspiring story! What made you initially choose to try the route of traditional publishing rather than self-publishing through somewhere like Amazon?
Two years ago, when I chose to pursue writing as a serious past time, I formulated The Plan. I expect it closely resembled most writers’ plans and involved building a writing CV, finding an agent and landing a publishing deal. As it happens, I ended up skipping the second step! While I’ve been aware of self-publishing for several years, I never thought about going down that route because I didn’t feel I knew enough to do so. Now that I’ve seen what having a book published entails, I realise just how little I knew back then. I’m not much further along the path now. But I admire the bravery of everyone choosing to self-publish and I’m always delighted when it goes well for them.
Traditional publishing is notorious for its low success rates for authors. For example, JK Rowling got rejected 12 times before Harry Potter was accepted. What advice would you give new authors who want to follow the same route as you?
Given how much of my publication journey depended on luck, I’m not sure how I might advise someone to replicate it. That said, my book deal is proof that entering writing competitions is worth it. I’d say that with novel opening competitions in particular, it’s important that the entry is in top shape. Follow guidelines, edit, edit and edit some more, proofread and seek beta readers’ feedback. It’s amazing what sort of mistakes we become blind to. Take those chances because you never know who might be reading.
What’s your writing process like? Are you someone who has to write in a particular seat in a particular coffee shop or are you more freeform in your preferred environment?
I can write pretty much anywhere and I’m actually strangely productive on all forms of public transport. When I’m working on a novel, I have notebooks littered around the house and have been known to scribble longhand notes dripping wet after a shower, while stirring soup with the other hand and last thing at night in bed. The majority of the work happens on my desktop or on the sofa using my laptop, usually with my Aussie asleep next to me. With my latest manuscript, I did a bit of writing in a local pub and rather liked it, so I may make that a semi-regular habit when I dive into my next project.
Fallible Justice is part of the ‘Wilde Investigations’ series and its sequel - Echo Murder - will be published in June 2019. Is writing it a different experience now that you know you have a confirmed publisher?
Very much so. You’d think the pressure was off, but it was quite the opposite. I had the worst case of second book syndrome with Echo Murder and pushed myself far too hard whilst writing it because I had a deadline to meet. In the process, I lost all perspective on the quality of the story. It wasn’t until my publisher said she loved it that I realised maybe I’d written a good book after all. Since then, I’ve consciously taken some of the pressure off myself. Writing the third book in the series was super fun and I can continue developing the series, safe in the knowledge that my publisher likes the plans I have for the future books.
Do you think that’s a particular problem with writers? I certainly know a few authors who are very driven to achieve a quality manuscript very quickly, even when they should be kinder to themselves because of their personal circumstances.
I think the adage “write every day” has a lot to answer for. I tried that, I really did, and wrote myself to the ground. Even after learning about self-care, I could easily let my ambitions and my desire to succeed take me back to the chasm of self-destruction. And all the pressure I was facing; I put it there. It was all me. While I think routines are important and writing is a job just like any other, it seems madness feel guilty about letting my body and mind rest every once in a while. Every time I do that, I reap the rewards in increased productivity and sneakier plot twists. Yet the guilt still remains… When it comes to writing in a more self-compassionate way, I don’t have all the answers or even the questions, but at least I feel as though I’m moving in the right direction.
I totally sympathise. Whenever I’m not writing, I feel the urge to drop what I’m doing to start something. It has sometimes spoiled the experience I’m actually having. I entirely agree that doing things outside of writing can be vital! I understand that you enjoy tabletop roleplaying games. Does being an author support this (or visa versa)?
Both, I think. My love of storytelling comes from gaming for two decades and I’ve been running games for almost as long. I used to be a DM with A to B to C plots, but having played with some brilliant people, I learned to be sneaky, both in gaming and in writing books. The lesson that blew my mind was: people lie. I’ve had so much fun with that, even if it does go against my upbringing as an honest Finn.
What do you play?
Dungeons & Dragons (3rd ed. and later 3.5) is what I “grew up” on, both as a player and game master. I’ve also run long campaigns in All Flesh Must Be Eaten and World of Darkness. Aside from D&D, the old and faithful ruleset I can pick up at 10 minute’s notice, I love playing Call of Cthulhu, Serenity and Shadowrun.
What authors inspire you?
Nicholas Evans has an ability to evoke emotions, especially melancholy, which stays with me long after I’ve put down his books. For many years, I thought that if I could make people feel like that, I will have succeeded as a writer. It took a long time for me to realise that I’ve already achieved that. But I remain in awe of his use of language. Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams all have an ability to take something mundane and turn it into something extraordinary, be it in their characters or in their worldbuilding. Agatha Christie made me fall in love with detective stories and I admire the sheer ingenuity of her plots, not to mention how wonderful Miss Marple and Poirot were.
Do you subscribe to Stephen King’s idea that prolific writers should also be prolific readers?
I do, but at the same time, I feel as though writing has ruined the experience of reading for me! It can be frustrating to notice that I’m reading my favourite authors with the editing hat on. But if the story is good enough, I’ll soon forget about analysing the narrative and stylistic choices. I think we pick up a lot from the books we read, both consciously and subconsciously and it all informs our own writing. There have been books that have made me feel like all my words are wrong and there have been books that I’ve hated so much I’ve been determined to write a better one in the same genre. We need both kinds of books to broaden our experiences, just as we need everything in between the two extremes.
If people want to interact with you online, what’s the best way of doing that?
I skulk around Twitter a lot, usually either playing hashtag writing games or trying to be funny (https://twitter.com/LLaaksoWriter). My website and blog can be found at https://lauralaaksobooks.com/ and my Facebook author page here https://www.facebook.com/lauralaaksowriter.
Thank you very much for your time.