Emily Steers and I both went to Emerson College and I remember sharing at least one writing class–there may have been more. Emily just released her first novel, Collecting The Constellations, a mystery-action-adventure story. So naturally, I had to interview her for the blog.
Charlotte Daly is goal-oriented, inquisitive, and tireless— ideal for her role as a researcher at a prestigious museum. She’s celebrated as an up-and-coming talent. She just never expected her greatest find to come from her great aunt’s basement.
It’s dazzlingly unique—a dagger made entirely of blue sapphire, flawless except for a few specks in the handle. To determine its secrets, Charlotte convinces her boss to let her re-trace her aunt’s travels to its source– with the accompaniment of her longtime friend and co-worker, Rory Hobbs.
Charlotte’s clues take her to Kathmandu, where they discover Charlotte’s aunt may not have been the noble adventurer she imagined. Conspicuous wealth, violent attacks, and grand myths plague the pair as they jump into a world of secret societies and treasure hunters they never knew existed.
The book is available in paperback and on Kindle. I’ve read it and I can assure you that it is a well written, entertaining ride of a story.
1. To start at the beginning (kind of): What, if anything, do you think you learned as a WLP (Writing, Lit., Publishing major) at Emerson that carried over into writing this, your first novel?
Going to Emerson was a really important decision for me (and, I’d imagine, most of us who really extended ourselves and our pocketbooks to make the most of a private school education). I don’t regret the decision to go there or to go into debt to do so, but I think a lot of us really wished the WLP program was more hands-on. The WLP program taught me, first and foremost, that this was possible. All of our professors were publishing– as well as teaching, and most were also raising children. So, that was definitely excellent perspective. While there, I didn’t focus on fiction, I focused almost entirely on publishing and writing for magazines. I learned a lot about how to keep narratives tight and to the point, which I think is something that’s important in most fiction, too. I write clean copy and that saves time in the editing process. I know how to craft a hook and to make people care about almost anything I write about. Though those weren’t skills I was taught in my fiction classes, those were the skills that became most important while writing a novel.
2. I know you’ve been copywriting and blogging for years now. How did you find the switch into writing fiction or had you been writing fiction all along?
I’ve been avoiding fiction like the plague since a junior year fiction class when I had a professor who basically ripped apart everything I wrote. I completely thought I was a worthless and horrible fiction writer and never went back to it. But something clicked inside my brain when I thought about the book I wanted to read, couldn’t find it, and just decided to write it myself. I don’t go too hard into highly literary, Man-Booker-Prize-winning books that are, to me, distraught emotional explorations. I, just personally, don’t have an overabundance of feelings that need to be validated through high literature. I wanted to be entertained by an ass-kicking, smart-mouthed female character.
3. Where did the inspiration for Collecting the Constellations come from? I know that’s a broad question, so specifically–where did the idea of the sapphire blade come from?
I grew up in Danbury, CT and just about on an every-other-month basis, my parents took my siblings and me to the American Museum of Natural History. The hall of minerals–which, if you’ve been there, you just transported yourself mentally to it’s rockin’ 1970s, wall-to-wall-shag-carpeted embrace– is my absolute favorite place in the world. I’m not particularly new-agey when it comes to crystals and stones, but I love the myths that surround valuable artifacts. The idea of a stone dagger seemed appropriately heavy, emotionally, for an ancient culture, but a great kickoff for a modern adventure. Certain parts of the story were suggestions from friends and family. An Emerson friend, when I told him I was writing an adventure novel, offered a crucial plot point in the form of a snarky question. When grumping to my sister about writer’s block, she suggested I have a T-Rex jump into the room and eat everyone, because no one would have expected it. So, at one point, I have Charlotte come across a T-Rex tooth as an ode to my sister. There are also references to Hitchcock movies, too, because at its heart, an adventure novel is a mystery novel but with swashbuckling.
4. I really enjoyed Charlotte as a character–she’s smart, strong, confident. Did she come to you fully-formed or did she develop over the process?
Charlotte was fairly fully-formed when I started writing her. So many male adventure novel or mystery novel protagonists are these flawless human beings, and I was jealous. It also seemed to me that the vast, vast majority of female characters from “blockbuster” books in the past few years (The Hunger Games, Twilight, or even Fifty Shades of Grey) were the same character: small-statured, somewhat shy, dark-haired, mousy, teenaged girls. I wanted to make someone who was the exact antithesis of that. Charlotte is tall and ballsy and firmly an adult, with adult problems and adult thoughts.
5. Who was the hardest character to write?
Mr. Sato. I had a very hard time with his motives but also trying my absolute best to not turn him into a caricature. Let me be honest– I’m a well-intentioned Caucasian lady who was writing a book with international characters. I was, and still am, terrified that I painted characters too broadly. But I tried hard not to.
6. Where did Mathilde come from? She reminds me of Victorian lady adventuresses like Lady Hester Stanhope or Gertrude Bell.
That’s exactly where Mathilde came from. For better or for worse, there was an oddly large sisterhood of Victorian-era wealthy women who went around the globe snatching up treasures and doing a fair amount of ethically-fuzzy archaeological work. I’m completely fascinated by them, because they were doing something that was so incredibly groundbreaking for their time but, looking back on it, was culturally chauvinist and potentially damaging to our understanding of world cultures. I think because most of them were regarded, both at the time and even now, more as hobbyists than actual scientists, they escape a lot of the scrutiny that people like Lord Carnarvon are still under. Mathilde, to me, was a natural extension of that. She’s rich as all get-out and not particularly educated, but she did have an emotional side to her that allowed her to see the cultural value of what she was collecting, rather than just the monetary value or the exoticism.
7. I self-published a novella last year, so I’m curious what brings people to self-publishing. What brought you to it? How are you finding it?
Going to Emerson, self publishing was certainly not something that I wanted to do. Like most writers, I had this idea in my head that my book was only going to be valued and valuable if I had a big New York publishing firm to stamp it with a seal of approval. I sent out query letters to 80 agents to be completely and utterly rejected by them all. But to be honest, my fiancé launched his own fairly-successful music publishing business three years ago, and encouraged me to go down my own path, just to see what happens.
Hopefully, Constellations will do well so that future works might be more successfully lobbied to more “legitimate” agents and press. I still think that there’s a gray cloud that hangs over self-published books that doesn’t hang over other independently created art, like film or music.
8. What weren’t you finding in the books you’ve read that made you have to write this book?
Though I touched upon it earlier, for me, I tried hard to write a book that tackled some of the typical tropes of books written for women. Charlotte doesn’t lose herself pining for a man, and she’s not punished for her relationships. She’s educated and fierce and driven without sacrificing female friendships. She likes her parents! I was tired of reading books where women’s lives are complete messes, and have it presented as though that’s the norm. I couldn’t read another book about a woman who didn’t know how to cook or what she wanted out of her career and just giggled her way through life until a Mr. Darcy doppelgänger rescued her from her pitiful self. And as I knew the woman I wanted to write, the story idea came hand-in-hand. She was going to be presented with a huge problem that could be solved, by herself and her own brain. Certain wheels were greased– she’s got cash, she’s got an education– but I couldn’t wait to read a book about a woman who was flung into the unknown and never asked, “Why me?!” Instead she’s given a life-or-death problem and yelled, “Bring it on!”
Emily Steers is one of the few writers based in Los Angeles who doesn’t write screenplays. With an extensive background in corporate copywriting and editorial, she has written for several national publications and keeps her own lifestyle blog. Emily is a graduate of Emerson College’s Writing, Literature, and Publishing program. She resides in Pasadena with her boyfriend and their two dogs. To keep in contact, follow her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or on her website emilysteers.com