Interview from SF Signal (RIP)

[GUEST INTERVIEW] Loren Rhoads on Kick-Ass Heroines, Mary Sue, Grimdark and Publishing Schedules

Loren Rhoads is the author of the “In the Wake of the Templars” space opera trilogy. She is also the author of the “As Above, So Below” paranormal novel. The Dangerous Type, the first book in the Templars trilogy, made io9’s list of must read science fiction, Barnes & Noble’s sci fi/fantasy picks, and Barnes and Noble’s 9 Space Operas’s to Read While You’re Waiting for Ancillary Mercy. The second edition of As Above, So Below will be out in April and a sequel will be out in November. She is writing a collection of short stories in the Templars universe. Her next novel is about the Alondra DeCourval character who appeared in “Fright Mare: Women Write Horror; in “The Haunted Mansion Project: Year One, Sins of the Sirens,” and in “Evermore: Tales of Murder, Mystery, and the Macabre.”

Loren answered a few of my questions about the In the Wake of the Templars trilogy, and more!


Carl Slaughter: From starship captains to police detectives to mercenaries to sorceresses to monster slayers, the fiction landscape is littered with kickass heroines. Where sos Raena, the protagonist of your “In the Wake of the Templars” trilogy, fit in this landscape?

Loren Rhoads: Raena Zacari was an assassin. Until her imprisonment, she worked for the wrong side of the galactic war, which trained her to kill. Over the course of the Templar trilogy, she learns to stop letting murder be her first reaction. I wanted to look at how difficult it is to break the patterns of the past, especially to move beyond the habits of violent response.

CS: Raena’s persona is a major theme of THE DANGEROUS TYPE. What persona does she view herself as having, what personas do the other characters view her as having, how accurate are these perceptions, and how do these perceptions affect character interaction?

LR: When Raena steps out of her tomb, she doesn’t know who she really IS. She only knows who she WAS – and that person was determined by who was giving her orders. Throughout The Dangerous Type, people who knew her 20 years in the past react to her as if she’s still that person they used to know. Some of them – Sloane and Thallian, in particular – do not want her to have changed. They aren’t interested in getting to know the person she is, only in controlling the person she was. The book shifts from their points of view to Raena’s over the course of the story, as she moves out of their shadows and finds her place in the post-War galaxy.

CS: Which actress would you cast as Raena for a screen adaptation?

LR: This turned out to be the most difficult question of the interview! I guess Emeraude Toubia from the Shadowhunters series might be a good fit. She can rock the high-heeled boots, anyway. Really, as I wrote about Raena, I had Misty Copeland, the amazing ballet dancer, in mind.

CS: I quote from the jacket copy of THE DANGEROUS TYPE: “smugglers, black market doctors, and other ne’er-do-wells sprawled across a galaxy brimming with alien life.” I quote from the jacket copy for KILL BY NUMBERS: “media obsessed pirates.” I quote from the jacket copy for NO MORE HEROES: “androids, drug dealers, journalists, and free-running media hackers.” This is in addition to the main character, her lovers, her enemies, and her entourage. How do you keep track of the scene count, development, and interaction they warrant, and fit them all into the story arc?

LR: Actually, those descriptions include Raena’s lovers, enemies, and entourage, too. The ne’er-do-wells, media pirates, and hackers are all members of the Veracity’s crew. In terms of fleshing out all the characters, Scrivener has been a lifesaver. I used to write everything in Word, which led to a lot of cutting and pasting as I moved scenes around. It was easy to lose track of subplots, because I don’t write things in order. Scrivener makes it really easy to see all the different points of view and to make sure they are developing as needed.

CS: Publishers Weekly accused you of trying to bring grimdark to space opera. What is grimdark and is Raena’s story indeed grimdark?

LR: The term grimdark comes from the game Warhammer 40K, whose tagline is “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” So grimdark started out as science fiction, got applied to fantasy (think Game of Thrones), and now is wrapping a tentacle around space opera.

CS: In an essay called “The Appeal of Grimdark” on SFSignal, C.T. Phipps boils grimdark down to two questions: “Is the situation screwed up beyond all repair? Do your heroes fight anyway?”

LR: That is exactly what I was aiming for: Raena knows as soon as she walks out of her tomb that if Thallian survived the War, he will hunt her down. He will exhaust every resource, expend every minion, until he gets her back.

She’s prepared to surrender until Doc reminds her that Raena is the last person left in the galaxy who knows how Thallian thinks. She’s the only person who can bring him down. From that point on, Raena is fairly clear-eyed about her role. Thallian trained her as a killer. She’s going to kill everyone who gets between her and her former commander. She doesn’t see herself as a hero, only as an agent of fate. She’s avenging the Templars because she’s the only one who can.

CS: Brutality is a word that popped up in reviews. Plenty of speculative fiction, including space operas, includes brutality. Is the Templars saga any more brutal than other speculative fiction stories?

LR: I was surprised by the charges of brutality in the Templar books. There is a fair amount of violence, but most of it is over quickly. The only honestly brutal murder happens off the page, but is dissected in the galactic media afterward. Very few innocents are killed, because there are almost no innocents in the books. And while children die in the first book, they have been trained up as soldiers by a madman. Raena tries to spare them, but her mercy is wasted.

CS: The story includes a lot of erotica. How do Raena’s sexual relationships fit into the character development and character interaction?

LR: The erotica is really a very small part of The Dangerous Type: 10 scenes out of 168. I wanted to explore all the ways that people try to control each other. Sex is definitely part of that equation. Also, in the first book, the characters have been separated for decades. It’s easier for them to connect with their clothes off than it is for them to talk, at least at first. Raena’s sexuality is less bound by gender than by her attraction to people as individuals. By the end of the series, she’s dating outside her species. The openness is a feature of her experimentations to find out who she is.

CS: Why did your publisher ask you to use a decidedly female pen name, why did you find that ironic, and how did you respond?

LR: My given name was the most common girl’s name the year I was born, so I never felt it belonged to me. I started using Loren the year I went to Clarion, which was 1986, so it’s reasonably well established.

When the publisher accepted this trilogy, they were excited about presenting science fiction written by a woman. There were some discussions early on about asking me to use a more feminine pen name so that people could see my gender from the book cover. I’m still not certain why that was important. My photo appears inside the books, in case anyone needs to categorize me.

I’m not at all opposed to using pen names. This time, though, I had 18 months to write, polish, publish, and promote three books. There just wasn’t time to create a new persona and redo all my social media. I was relieved when the publisher agreed I should focus on getting the books written.

CS: Most authors have a policy against responding to reviewers. It’s kind of an unspoken taboo in the publishing industry. But in various guest blogs, you responded at some length. Why was this important?

LR: First off, I would never dream of directly challenging a reviewer. I absolutely believe that reviewers have every right to their opinions. I also understand that they are writing for readers, not for me.

That said, topics came up in reviews that I found surprising and wanted to address at length. We’ve touched on some of them here: the charges of brutality, bringing grimdark to space opera, the amount of erotica in my action story. Those subjects inspired me to think more about them – and I had a lot of guest posts to write, since I was doing my first blog tour. It felt important to try the criticisms on for size, to see where they reflected my story and where they actually told more about the reviewers’ tastes.

Lost-Angels-Cover-Front-SmCS: What’s the connection between your lead female character and gangs of feral boys?

LR: I hadn’t realized until I reread A Clockwork Orange, that my novels often have packs of teenage boys in them. InThe Dangerous Type, Raena fights Thallian’s cloned sons. In the first As Above, So Below novel, Lorelei runs with a Vietnamese gang.

In both cases, the boys are inspired by kids I knew when I was in college. I had been hired to lead D&D games for a church youth group of eight teenaged boys. I can’t remember what precipitated the attack now, but the boys wrestled me onto my back on the gaming table, held me down, and started to unbutton my blouse.

These were nice boys, individually. We were in a church. There were people upstairs. Unfortunately, the pack mentality took over. I am lucky that they liked me more than they wanted to hurt me.

I guess, in my books, I am still fighting them off.

CS: What’s the connection between Raena’s character and fashion?

LR: This question made me laugh. Raena grew up in a militaristic cult before she was captured by slavers and sold to a war profiteer as a bodyguard for his daughter. Later Raena serves aboard an Imperial warship and wears a uniform. When the Templars series begins, she’s just come out of prison. For the first time in her life, she can choose what she wants to wear. She doesn’t have any idea what will look good on her, so she optimizes for color.

CS: How did ballet inspire Raena’s character?

LR: I studied ballet for 15 years and was quite serious about it. One of the girls I danced with went on to join Joffrey Ballet. I continue to be awed by the strength, speed, and power of dancers, especially by Misty Copeland. Ballet dancers provided the physical model for Raena.

CS: Who is Mary Sue and why does she get so much attention?

LR: Mary Sue was a character in a Star Trek satire in the 70s. She was a remarkably young, beautiful, and wise character who took command of the Enterprise when all the familiar characters were stricken after an away mission.

Mary Sue accusations are thrown out every time a female character is judged too good or strong or smart. Most recently, it happened with Rey inThe Force Awakens. Male protagonists who fit those attributes are considered normal: say, a farmboy who has never seen a star fighter before not only survives his first major battle in space, but also manages to blow up the Death Star. However, if a scavenger who has already shown fighting skills picks up a lightsaber and fights off an injured opponent, that is deemed unbelievable. Therefore, Rey must be a Mary Sue.

My protagonist Raena was labeled a Mary Sue in one of the reviews, but I wouldn’t want to be Raena on a dare. In fact, one of my inspirations for Raena was the old silent Aeon Flux cartoons from MTV’s Liquid Television. I don’t think Raena is perfect in any sense. She’s just very good at killing people.

CS: In one of the sequels, the protagonist is put on trial. How do you mix sci fi and courtroom drama? How do you get sci fi fans interested in legal proceedings?

LR: Well, I hope that No More Heroes is interesting because there’s never any question that Raena is guilty as hell. The drama is in how she is going to face the charges. Also, I wanted to explore how a government might use the legal process as a moneymaking venture, rather than as a venue to provide justice. As in the earlier books, I wanted to look at issues of power and prejudice. I am not a fan of courtroom TV, so I wanted to peer beyond courtroom theater to see what plays out behind the scenes.

CS: Why do journalists factor so heavily in the latter part of the story?

LR: I studied journalism at university, then published Morbid Curiositymagazine for 10 years, so I’m intrigued by the power of citizen journalists. I love the way cell phone cameras and the Internet have put the “news” in the hands of average citizens. I have long felt that the world can only be changed by someone with a story to tell. At the same time, I’ve studied bias and spin. I understand how a story can be manipulated to hone its impact. I wanted to put the galaxy in the hands of journalists on a mission.

CS: Is your “Claustrophobia” short story a direct prequel to THE DANGEROUS TYPE or just the inspiration?CS: 

LR: Thirty years ago, “Claustrophobia” was the first Raena story I published. It was Star Wars fanfic. Raena no longer lives in that universe, but the events in that original story – which ended with Raena locked in a tomb – led directly to the beginning of The Dangerous Type. So I guess it’s a direct prequel, albeit with some retconning along the way.

CS: Why is it important to Raena’s character development and important to the plot that she be entombed and for such a long time? Why is it important that she not age and not be able to die during her entombment?

LR: The character interactions in The Dangerous Type were based on friendships I have had since high school. We interact with each other based on things that were said and done decades ago, but when we see each other in person, it’s clear that time has marked us and we cut each other slack. I wanted to spin that for the novel. What if a friend showed up from your past, someone you had a brief but very intense relationship with, and they looked exactly as you remember them? It would be challenging to treat that person as if time had passed for her as well, especially if you don’t want her to have changed at all.

CS: The nature of her tomb causes her to be ageless and immortal while she’s in it. Is this science or fantasy?

LR: I was listening to Decipher SciFi podcast the other day and they explained how Star Wars should be read as fantasy. Maybe all space opera is fantasy in science drag. There are definite fantastic elements to theTemplar books, particularly surrounding Templar technology. I took Clarke as my motto: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

In these novels, the Templars were an old race, possibly the first to have traveled to the stars. Before their annihilation, they controlled trade throughout the galaxy. Common devices, from translators to star drives, were based on their technology. After a human-engineered plague wipes them out, their tech lies scattered around the galaxy. Some of it can be made to work by the galaxy’s survivors, but the science behind it is poorly understood. In fact, in the second book, tesseract spaceship drives – derived from Templar tech – are breaking down. That causes shortages and riots as food and people can no longer be safely transported from planet to planet.

CS: Why isn’t every creature in the universe scrambling to camp out in this tomb? Why aren’t the creators of this tomb selling times shares? Why aren’t criminals trying to muscle in on the action?

LR: Fair question. The short answer is the effect only works on things that are shut up inside the tomb.

The longer answer is that only people who know Raena know that she didn’t age during her imprisonment. She’s in no hurry to tell anyone else, because she’s afraid the galaxy will try her for war crimes if they knew whom she served.

CS: AS ABOVE, SO BELOW is just as epic as the Templars trilogy and the characters are just as interesting. Any idea why it didn’t get the publicity mileage Templars did?

LR: The rights have finally reverted to me and Brian again, so a second edition is coming out in April, followed by the sequel in November. Hopefully, having a new publisher will make all the difference for those books.

CS: Theology is a major element of AS ABOVE, SO BELOW. What kind of research did you do on theology to prepare for writing the book?

LR: Brian Thomas, my co-author, served as a researcher in the library at 20th Century Fox for ten years. He worked on TV shows like The X-Files andMillennium, Buffy, Angel, and The Omen. His knowledge of religious history and angelic lore is breathtaking.

CS: Is AS ABOVE, SO BELOW a Romeo and Juliet story?

LR: It’s not a direct parallel, but as with any story where the lovers come from opposing armies, there are elements of Romeo and Juliet. There are also echoes of the Hatfields and the McCoys.

CS: One of the characters in AS ABOVE, SO BELOW becomes host to another character’s soul. Do they have dialog? Is there a struggle for control?

LR: Yes. The succubus Lorelei becomes possessed by the ghost of a mortal teenager. Their conversations are some of my favorite parts of the book.

CS: How did publishing a Star Wars fanfic mag for a local science fiction convention lead almost directly to a 3 book contract with a major sci fi publisher for an original story?

LR: Well, it was “almost directly” over the span of decades. Inspired by theThieves’ World books in the 1980s, my friends and I wrote a shared world anthology around original characters who lived in the Star Wars universe. “Claustrophobia,” the original Raena story, appeared in a zine calledAnthology, which was published for the MediaWest Convention in 1986.

Over the next 11 years, the Anthology zine morphed into Tales of a New Republic, which published five more stories that I wrote about Raena and her nemesis, Thallian. I really liked the characters and toyed on and off with writing more about them, but I’d lost interest in writing more fanfic.

Finally, in 2003, I used the National Novel Writing Month to hammer outThe Dangerous Type. I stripped out all the Star Wars elements of Raena’s backstory, which wasn’t hard to do since she had been so tangentially connected to Star Wars in the first place. The only thing I retained was the human Empire reaching out into space and getting slapped down by a Coalition of humans and aliens. In The Dangerous Type, the War is long over and the survivors have settled into the aftermath. The Templars are still mourned and there is a lot of prejudice against humanity for causing the genocide.

In 2012, I used another NaNoWriMo to bang out a sequel to the first unpublished novel. That second book was called No More Heroes, until the story altered so much that the title didn’t fit. (It was eventually published asKill By Numbers.)

I’d been friends with an independent press editor for years – we both worked at Borderlands Bookstore for a while — but he’d never wanted anything I’d written before. In the summer of 2013, I mentioned that I had this Hong Kong-style revenge space opera with a Hammer Horror villain – and a Nanowrimo draft of a sequel. Would he be interested in reading them?

He asked to see The Dangerous Type in August 2013. Two weeks later, he asked to see what I had of Kill By Numbers. Then he asked me if I thought I could write a third book. He wanted to pitch the series to the publisher as a trilogy.

CS: The first book in the Templars trilogy came out in the summer of 2015. The first and second sequels came out almost back to back in the fall of 2015. Aren’t you supposed to wait 6 months to a year between novels in the same universe to provide marketing and logistics time for the publishers and reading time for the fans?

LR: I would have preferred to have the books come out farther apart. In fact, when I signed the contract in January 2014, the plan was for The Dangerous Type to come out in July 2015, followed by Kill By Numbers in November 2015, and No More Heroes to come out in 2016. Somewhere along the way, the schedule got truncated, so that all three books came out in a five-month period in 2015.

It was absolutely brutal to write to that schedule. Between mid-October 2014 and June 2015, I wrote 150,000 new words and turned in three finalized novels. Before I could get very far on the promotion for The Dangerous Type, I came down with pneumonia. The publisher’s publicist was begging me to finish my piece for Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog the day I got my diagnosis.

If I had had any choice, I would have pushed for a longer gap between the books, but the publisher explained the schedule as binge-Netflixing for books.

CS: What’s the premise for the AS ABOVE, SO BELOW sequel, DIES IRAE?

LR: Dies Irae was the perfect title for the second succubus/angel book, but it’s too hard for most people to pronounce, so I think the new title will beAngelus Rose.

In the first As Above, So Below book (now called Lost Angels), the angel Azaziel puts a mortal soul into the succubus Lorelei, which leads to the biggest exorcism LA has ever seen.

In Angelus Rose, the sequel, Lorelei discovers that she wasn’t the only experiment Azaziel was doing with mortal souls. This time, the demon prince of LA decides to make war over what she uncovers.

CS: What kind of research was involved in your “Wish You Were Here” documentary and what did you learn in the process?

LR: “Wish You Were Here” is my collection of cemetery travel essays. It’s kind of a memoir of my life as lived in cemeteries around the world. Many of the essays were written for a monthly column on Gothic.Net, so it was a gradual process – first, of discovering how much I didn’t know, then of finding some answers about memorial customs around the world. The thing I learned that surprised me most was that graveyards have fashions, as people’s beliefs about death transform. I also find it fascinating how motifs change in meaning from place to place and over time. I think everyone should add a graveyard or two to their vacation travel.

CS: Is the setting for the Haunted Mansion project real or fictional?

LR: The Haunted Mansion is a real place. It’s a huge house in Marin County, California that serves as a wedding venue and retreat center. Twice, Rain Graves set up writers’ retreats there. A small group of writers, painters, and ghost hunters would spend a long weekend in the house. Afterward, we’d put together an anthology of stories and poems inspired by the retreat. The fiction in the books was supplemented by site reports and nonfiction essays about the hauntings.

Most of the people involved in the Haunted Mansion Project were horror writers: Weston Ochse, Yvonne Navarro, Angel Leigh McCoy, Rena Mason, SG Browne, Chris Marrs, ES Magill, Lisa Morton, Sephera Giron, and more. I had the honor of editing The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two.

CS: Morbid Curiosity has been described as an underground cult magazine. Is that an accurate description?

LR: Yes. Morbid Curiosity collected true first-person essays about “the unsavory, unwise, unorthodox, and unusual.” It was published annually between 1996 and 2006. It didn’t take subscriptions, so I mailed a postcard to everyone on my mailing list every time an issue came out – and they responded by writing fan letters and sending checks. It was an amazing community.

CS: How did editing Morbid Curiosity for 10 years contribute to your speculative fiction writing?

LR: I read a huge number of essays for the magazine over the years, so I learned a lot about the nature of memory, story, and personifying the first-person narrator. I also hosted open mics at the World Horror Convention for years, which introduced me to writers at all levels. The combination of working with all those words and meeting all those people gave me a really good foundation when I returned to fiction, which was my first love.

CS: With Raena’s story concluded, what’s next? More sequels in the “As Above, So Below” universe?

LR: Actually, I’ve been writing short stories in the Templar universe. I had to cut a lot from Raena’s story in order to fit it into three books. For instance, I lost everything I’d written from Vezali’s nonbinary-gendered point of view. I’m looking forward to fleshing out more of the background stories.

This month, February 2016, saw another story about my magical monster hunter Alondra DeCourval published. This story appears in Fright Mare: Women Write Horror. Other stories about Alondra’s adventures have appeared in the books The Haunted Mansion Project: Year One, Sins of the Sirens, and in Evermore: Tales of Murder, Mystery, and the Macabre, among other places. I’d like to find a home for a novel about Alondra and her real-world magic.

I think As Above, So Below will probably stay with just the two novels. Brian and I wrote part of a third book, but it may never be finished. It was really dark, which you know is saying something, coming from me.

CS: Any advice to aspiring speculative fiction writers?

LR: Don’t give up. It was a long road from writing Star Wars fanfic to a three-book contract, but I learned a lot along the way. Keep telling the stories that you want to read, keep sending them out, and keep meeting people. You never know when you’ll finally get your chance to put the right manuscript in the right hands.

More from Loren Rhoads


Carl Slaughter wrote many reviews for Tangent before moving to Diabolical Plots as a reviewer and later an interviewer. He conducted 50 plus interviews for Diabolical Plots. For the past 14 years, he has traveled the globe teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in 6 counties on 3 continents. Carl has traveled to 18 countries and counting. (He’s tired.) In college, Carl studied journalism, broadcasting, advertising, English, speech, and history. For several years, he was a stringer for the Associated Press. His essay on Chinese culture was published in Beijing Review. His essay on Korean culture was published in The Korea Times, as was his expose on the Korean ESL industry. His travel/education reports about Thailand occasionally appear on the Ajarn website. Carl subscribes to the Mike Resnick philosophy of fiction: It’s all about the characters. Check out Carl’s Diabolical Plots interviews, his Facebook photos with his students of all ages from around the world, and a short Youtube video of Carl with some VERY excited Thai kindergarteners.

About Loren Rhoads

I'm the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, as well as a space opera trilogy. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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