Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Story Behind the Story

Hannah Jeffers-Huser discusses first novel,

What Lies Beyond

By: Ralvell Rogers II

As Meadowlark author Hannah Jeffers-Huser ends the year with her first published book titled What Lies Beyond, I, Ralvell Rogers II and Jeffers-Huser’s Meadowlark marketing correspondent, not only spoke with Jeffers-Huser about her riveting new fantasy series, the Salacir Chronicles, but also about her early years as a high school student and history enthusiast. As a result, the conversation we had together while sitting in the back of Emporia’s very own Ellen Plumb’s Books Store, is transcribed word-for-word below.

Rogers: First question, where are you from?

Jeffers-Huser: I’m from Fredonia, Kansas, which is pretty southeast. It’s a couple hours from Emporia.

Rogers: You’re a student, right?

Jeffers-Huser: Yeah, at Emporia State.

Rogers: What year are you?

Jeffers-Huser: A senior, but I have a few more years to go.

Rogers: Did you change your major or something?

Jeffers-Huser: My first semester here actually, I changed to English education, and I was miserable. So, I changed back after a few weeks, but I keep adding minors.

Rogers: Yeah, so what’s your major now?

Jeffers-Huser: Secondary social science education with a minor in creative writing and a minor in geography.

Rogers: (laughing)

Jeffers-Huser: Yeah, it’s a mouthful (smiles).

Rogers: That’s interesting. So, what does that deal with exactly?

Jeffers-Huser: It’s social studies. That program is the program that does history, government, economics, civics, and geography. So, just all of the social studies that you would teach in fifth thru twelfth grade.

Rogers: So, what made you attracted to that field, I guess?

Jeffers-Huser: Well, I had a history teacher in high school who was fabulous, and he really helped me fall in love with history. I did some student-teaching through my high school at the middle school for an English class, and it was through that program that I realized that I wanted to be an English teacher.

Rogers: What was it about teaching English that made you say “Nah, never mind?”

Jeffers-Huser: It was how extensive the English program was... So, I have my associates degree in secondary education with an emphasis in history, and I switched to English when I moved to Emporia, so switching back wasn’t really that hard. It was more of while I was an English major I wasn’t enjoying it nearly as much as I had when I was doing history.

Rogers: So, you mentioned that you had a teacher in high school who was a really good history teacher.

Jeffer-Huser: Oh, yeah.

Rogers: What else do you think caused you to be interested in history so much?

Jeffers-Huser: Well, my grandma is pretty interested in history as well, and so I would talk to her about history. Whether if it was about the history of our family, history of different regions because she got to travel all over the place when she was younger because her father was in the Air Force.

Rogers: Okay, so transitioning to the book a little bit, how has your interest in history kind of influenced this book, or has it?

Jeffers-Huser: I think it has a little bit. With it being a fantasy novel and me being able to create the world myself, I still did a little bit of research on medieval culture because the book is sort of medieval, but getting to create a history of a world that doesn’t exist, or didn’t exist before is probably my favorite part about writing.

Rogers: Okay, more into the writing aspect, where did this series come from? Where did this idea come from?

Jeffers-Huser: So, three and half years ago, I just sat down and just started writing this story that is completely different to the final product now, and I created the world and I left it alone for a year. I wrote probably three or four chapters of it, and then had to focus on graduating from high school.

Rogers: So, you started writing this when you were in high school?

Jeffers-Huser: Yeah, probably the end of my senior year... And then I went to community college, and I continued to work on it a little bit, and then my last semester there the creative writing club I joined decided as a group we were going to participate in Nanowrimo. I had never done it before, didn’t know what National Novel Writing Month was before that, and couldn’t think of any ideas for a novel that I wanted to write, and then I was just scrolling through the documents in my computer and I found this file that I had written about a year and half previous, and I’m like, “You know, let’s try this.” So, I started writing more of it in October, so I kind of cheated a little bit, and wrote in October and November. But it was originally a werewolf novel.

Rogers: What? (laughs)

Jeffers-Huser: Yeah, it was completely different from what it is now, but about a week into Nanowrimo I changed it completely, and rewrote everything I had written previously and restarted from scratch, and changed the history of the world, got rid of werewolves entirely…

Rogers: How’d you do that? Like, where’d that come from? You just started coming up with stuff out of nowhere?

Jeffers-Huser: Yeah, I was reading what I had written one afternoon, and I just thought, “I don’t like this at all” (laughs). “I don’t like the werewolves, I don’t like the concept of it.” And so I scraped all of it, and there’s a couple scenes in the book (current) that are the same or similar to the original document, but they’ve been changed a lot.

Rogers: So, I guess we can go a little more into the book. Give us like, a quick synopsis of what the book is about. (laughs)

Jeffers-Huser: Oh, gosh (laughs). So, What Lies Beyond I’d like to think is sort of a story where two characters from two drastically different worlds come together to overcome the differences between their societies to learn to, not only get along, but learn to help their families and the rest of their people get along as well.

Rogers: And there’s like a prophecy too?

Jeffers-Huser: Yeah, the two main characters are part of a prophecy in which the night they were both born, two prophets had made this prophecy that a great war would begin later on in their lives, and these two children who had just been born would be the ones to bring their societies together to end that war. They’re (the two children) called peace bringers, and peace bringers are marked by a tiny diamond-shaped birthmark somewhere on their bodies. One character has it on his forehead, and the other has it on her neck.

Rogers: Now, I know a lot of times you’ll hear, like with JK Rowling’s books she talks about how like, the dementors are based on her misfortunes in life, and how you’ll get some other authors who base certain characters on family members or different people they’ve encountered in their life. Are there some of those kind of characters that you have in your book? Did you base any of these characters on a brother, sister or cousin, or like, mom or dad?

Jeffers-Huser: Not that I can think of, I didn’t. One thing that I try to do in any of my writing is I will not name a character after somebody I know because I don’t want that character and that person to have any kind of association. There may be bits and pieces of different characters that have traits from people that I know, but I didn’t actively say, “Okay, I’m going to base this character off of this person.”

Rogers: Would you say that the characters are maybe a reflection of the many parts of yourself, then?

Jeffers-Huser: Yeah, I definitely would say that each one (character) has like a little snippet of myself in them.

Rogers: Writing this story, you said you started off writing a little bit in high school, changed it up around Nanowrimo. So after that change-up, when was the point where you were like, “Okay, this is going to be a thing?”

Jeffers-Huser: Well, I finished the entire thing at the end of that Nanowrimo, and I left it alone for about a month and a half, and then started the “Now What?” months that Nanowrimo does, and started editing it. What I did was I printed out the entire book on paper, front and back, carried it around with me everywhere, and I just did my first read through, first edit. I took out entire chapters, I rewrote chapters, and I did that for a few months, and then I put everything I had written on the page into a new document. That was about the time I moved to Emporia. I had met a couple friends that semester, and when I told them I had written a book they were like, “Oh, we’ve got to read it,” and I’m like, “Oh, okay.” So, I went to their dorm room for a few weeks with the manuscript and we would just read it aloud, and they would give me feedback like, “Hey this sentence sounds a little weird,” or they would help me fill in some plot holes that they saw. And we did that for a few weeks. One of them still actually has that manuscript because I ended up leaving it with her. So, she still has that very early draft of the manuscript.

Rogers: So, maybe you’ll be able to sell that for some big bucks later on (laughs).

Jeffers-Huser: Maybe (laughs).

Rogers: Okay, so you were talking about the editing, and you seem like you did a lot of editing, and you had a lot of other people do a lot of editing.

Jeffers-Huser: Yeah, so for a year I did some editing and I let a couple of friends that semester do some editing, and then that summer I went to intern at a church camp where I continued to work on it. But while I was working on it, I was searching for a literary agent to try to help me get it published and work on it more, and that failed. I didn’t find anybody, and then the following semester I came back to Emporia and continued to edit it a little bit. I had given up on trying to publish it at that point. I was like, “Well, maybe this is just something I’m going to keep for myself.”

Rogers: Was that because you couldn’t find a literary agent?

Jeffers-Huser: Yeah, mostly. And then Marcia (Lawrence) opened up Ellen Plumb’s (Book Store), and I went to talk to her, mentioned that I had written this book, and she goes, “Oh, let me give you Tracy’s (Million Simmons) info,” and gave me Tracy’s email and the Meadowlark website, and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to try this.” So, I ran through the manuscript one more time, sent everything that Tracy required to her, and then waited for months, and then the day that I had given up on hearing anything back, I checked my email and sure enough, there’s an email from Tracy saying, “Hey, I’d like to meet you.” I went into class in tears that afternoon (laughs).

Rogers: (laughs) That’s awesome. That’s a really great story… So, as far as the editing goes, you know, a lot of people fear editing, and they hate editing.

Jeffers-Huser: I enjoy it. I would rather edit than write. I’m doing Nanowrimo write now, and as I’m writing the current thing I’m working on, I’m wanting to edit it as I write it, which is something you’re not supposed to do with Nanowrimo. So, I’ve only got two chapters of my current project written because I keep going back and forth, and adding new things and deleting things. (laughs) I’m really bad about editing when you’re not supposed to.

Rogers: Okay, so, for writers out there who don’t really like editing--I know I don’t. I despise it (laughs). I just like writing it, and letting it go, but editing is really great thing, and it’s something that a lot of writers need work on. Do you have anything encouraging or any tips on editing? A way to approach it, I guess.

Jeffers-Huser: Eventually you’re going to get tired of looking at your manuscript. It’s just inevitable. I have read through mine so many times that I’m tired of it, but when you finally get that finished product, it’s so worth it. With each read through, you find new things that you missed before. Kind of like when you watch a movie three or four times, when you read a book more than once, you catch little minute details each time. So, every time that you edit your manuscript you find more details or get better ideas. During one of my edits, I noticed that a chapter was really short, and so I was like, “Okay, what can I do to add to this chapter?” So, I wrote an entire scene that’s probably one of my favorite scenes in the book about the two characters making flower crowns together. It’s so simple, but it didn’t get added in until like, two years after I started the whole thing. So, there’s something new every time you read through it. Whether it’s new ideas, or something you want to change.

Rogers: So, I guess it’s just good to look forward to improving it.

Jeffers-Huser: Yeah, it helps you fill in plot holes that you may have missed during your first ten read-throughs.

Rogers: (laughs and repeats) “First ten…”

Jeffers-Huser: (laughs)

Rogers: Okay, so what other questions do I have?... So, you touched on the literary agent thing a little bit, and there’s a lot of writers who are still gunning for literary agents. Now with independent publishing out there, and people who can publish themselves, what do you think about literary agents? Do you think that authors need them?

Jeffers-Huser: I think it depends on how you want to go about publishing because if you self-publish, you’re on your own. If you go through an independent publisher, it’s a smaller company, and you may not sell as many books, but I feel like working with Meadowlark has been a lot more rewarding than it would’ve been had I gotten an agent and gone to a larger company like Harpercollins, or Penguin Books. And with an agent, when I was doing my research, you pay them out of your royalties. So, the publisher’s taking so much of your royalties, and then you have to give so much of what you make to your agent…

Rogers: And then you end up with a penny.

Jeffers-Huser: But there’s a lot of traditional publishers who won’t accept your book without an agent. I had a dream for years to be published by HarperCollins.

Rogers: I think a lot of authors do.

Jeffers-Huser: Because I love their young adult books, and I follow their YouTube channel EpicReads. My favorite authors have been published by them, but I like how more personal the independent route is.

Rogers: You said you were doing Nanowrimo now, so, what are you writing?

Jeffers-Huser: My original plan was to write book two of the series (Salacir Chronicles), but I’ve been trying to write that for the last year and half, and it hasn’t been going well (laughs). So, I put it to the side and started writing something completely new, based on one of my Dungeons and Dragons’ (D&D) characters. The character that I play in Dungeons and Dragons, her name is Phoenix, and she’s a Phoenix Sorcerer, which essentially just means there’s a phoenix sealed inside of her, and she does weird fire powers. So, I took that character, changed her name up a little bit, and then gave the phoenix within her a persona, and created this lore behind the phoenix. I don’t really have a complete outline of it yet, but essentially she is being hunted by this organization called The Brotherhood, who wants the phoenix. They want capture her and try to brainwash her to do something to get on their side, so they can have the phoenix because whenever the host of the phoenix dies, the phoenix goes into another host. So, the want her before she dies and the phoenix disappears again.

Rogers: That sounds really cool.

Jeffers-Huser: But she is like, the daughter of crime-lord, so one criminal organization already has the phoenix, and their rival organization wants it. So, it’s a clash back and forth between these two criminal organizations.

Rogers: That sounds pretty cool, actually (laughs).

Jeffers-Huser: I’m enjoying it so far (smiles). Even in D&D, she’s a character a lot different than what I usually play or write. She is not very nice. She’s a horrible person, so it’s been really interesting to write that kind of “bad guy, good guy” character. It’s like, the character you love to hate, and I am enjoying that very much.

Rogers: Yeah, so like, is there an antagonist in the series that you’re writing now? Like a villain?

Jeffers-Huser: In the first book, the antagonist is mostly the war in itself and the people who are causing the war, and the idea that these different cultures hate one another. So, it’s more of like an outside force antagonist than a specific person. In book two, I’m not going to give too much away, but there’s... a group of people... who are after... the main characters... and it takes place twenty years later than the first book with completely new characters.

Rogers: You said that you’ve kind of put book two on the shelf because things have been kind of difficult.

Jeffers-Huser: Yeah.

Rogers: Do you think that’s maybe because you started off writing the first book years ago, and you’re trying to come back to the idea of creating something again.

Jeffers-Huser: No...I don’t think so…

Rogers: What do you think is holding you back?

Jeffers-Huser: I think it’s because I have five novels going at once.

Rogers: (laughs)

Jeffers-Huser: I have book two. I have book three. I have another book about a human sacrifice. I have this phoenix book, and then I have one about dragons. So, I have five going at once, and I keep alternating between which ones I work on. So, for a couple months I’ll work on this one, and then for a couple more months I’ll work on this one, and then I’ll completely give up another one for several months, and then write something else. So, it’s been a matter of I’ve just had so many ideas that I can’t sit down and finish just one.

Rogers: So, you’ve already started working on book two and book three at the same time?

Jeffers-Huser: Yeah. Book two is a lot further than book three is because book three I just started within the last couple months.

Rogers: That’s pretty cool. So, going into the last questions, there’s always a lesson that some books teach us. Like, in Harry Potter, the lesson of the whole series is that love prevails, pretty much. You see that theme a lot. So, what do you think is the theme or the lesson that you want readers to get from your book.

Jeffers-Huser: I would like to think that the lesson in the book would be to accept people for their differences. Don’t put them down just because they’re different than you. Don’t think less of them because their culture is different from yours, which I think with how our society is right now is a really big thing.

Rogers: Yeah... Okay, is there anything else you want to say about your book? Anything about your series in general? Your release? Book signing, anything?

Author Hannah Jeffers-Huser will be at Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore 5:30 - 6:30 Tuesday, signing copies of her debut novel, What Lies Beyond, a young adult fantasy set in the kingdom of Salacir. The book is the first in a planned series of three.

What Lies Beyond is published by Meadowlark Books of Emporia. It sells for $15 and is available here, at Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore, 1122 Commercial St., Emporia, and can be found on Amazon.

Ralvell Rogers II
Meadowlark Intern, Fall 2017
 Ralvell Rogers II is a fourth year English major creative writing minor at Emporia State University (ESU). Currently, he is the President of the Black Writer's Club, an RSO in which Ralvellfounded during the 2017-2018 school year. In addition to attending classes and working as a writing tutor for the Writing Center, Ralvell is a Marketing/Editing Intern for Emporia publishing company, Meadowlark Books. He was a staff writer/columnist/editor for the ESU student newspaper, The Bulletin for three years, a contributor to the 2017 Quest Magazine, and the youth reflection speaker for the SCLC's 2016 Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Kansas City, Missouri. Ralvell has been published by the ESU student literary journal, Quivira, and local journal, Tittynope Zine. In the near future, Ralvell will be a renowned writer and educator.

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