Last month I devoured Heartstrikers and when I say devoured, I was practically finishing one chunky book in that wonderful series every other day. I still look back on the original characters and excellent action and smile. It has been a long time since I have read a series that made me keep smiling a month after reading.
I am coming to understand that that is Rachel Aaron’s MO. Her books are engaging and fun. Ones readers will come back for second and third reads. This month Rachel is dropping the first book in a brand new series, The Last Stand of Mary Good Crow. There is already a huge amount of buzz about it. Rachel was kind enough to interview with me about her writing, self-publishing, and her newest book. Check it out!
Hey Rachel, thank you so much for doing this interview with me!
My pleasure! Thank you for having me!
Firstly, for those who have not converted yet to the church of Bach and Aaron, can you tell us a bit about your writing?
That’s a broad topic that I should probably self-reflect on more!
If you look at my backlist, you’ll see that I change genres a lot. I’ve written SciFi, Epic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, and all kinds of other stuff piled on top. Back when I wrote for Orbit Books, my editor was constantly complaining that she couldn’t shelve my stuff properly because I was always writing stuff that didn’t fit neatly into bookstore categories, like hard action SciFi with a strong romance, or fast paces funny Epic Fantasy.
This is because writing for me has always been about doing what’s most interesting and fun. I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t write a book if I’m not personally invested in the story, and since my interests have jumped all over as I’ve learned and grown, so have my novels. This isn’t to say they aren’t connected. Every book I write is very much a Rachel Aaron book. I like big gutsy stories in complex secondary worlds with loveable characters I want to spend time with. I like writing funny people in very serious situation. I love drama and high stakes and impossible odds. My stories are always larger than life, but always have happy endings.
That’s my genre: big dramatic rides with loveable people! Whether that happens with dragons or space ships changes depending on what flavor best fits the story I want to tell, but it’s always going to be my book. I think that’s why my fans have followed me through so many genres. If you like the Rachel Aaron flavor, that’s what you’re going to get no matter what category I appear under.
You go by two names, Rachel Aaron and Rachel Bach. Why the two names, and how did you select them?
Rachel Bach was given to me by my publisher early in my career when I jumped from Epic Fantasy with my first series, THE LEGEND OF ELI MONPRESS, to hard SciFi Romance with my second, PARADOX. My editor, quite rightly, thought that it’d be bad for my brand to have two such wildly different types of books under one name. We didn’t know back then that I would become such a wild genre rebel, so I agreed to become Rachel Bach for SciFi and Rachel Aaron for Fantasy.
Annnnnd then I never wrote another SciFi, or another Epic Fantasy! I wrote Urban Fantasy and an Anime Tie-In novel for ATTACK ON TITAN, and now Historical Fantasy. I was a publicist’s nightmare! Utterly unmarketable. It would have been so much better for my career if I could have just stuck with one genre, because I’m sure I have readers who loved my Urban Fantasy HEARTSTRIKERS series but don’t care about Westerns. But like I said, I had to write what I loved, so here we are.
I’m just glad I escaped with only two pen names!
Does having a different name give you a different mindset for writing?
Not really. Like I said, I write whatever I think is the coolest and most amazing. My mindset does change according to the sort of story I’m writing, though. THE LAST STAND OF MARY GOOD CROW has a much more serious and realistic setting than the world I made for my dragon books. Because of the nature of writing something set in an actual time period, I had to go into subjects that are much heavier than I’m used to, like racism and genocide.
This isn’t to say it’s a dark book—I don’t write those, not my style—but it is more serious than anything I’ve written before, and that required a change in approach. That’s a good thing, though! It was good for me to take on something with more teeth, and I’m very, very proud of the book that I got in the end.
Which genre do you gravitate to for personal enjoyment, and which ones do you enjoy writing the most in? You have written in romance, fantasy, urban, and science fiction. Or do you love jumping genres?
Oh gosh, I jump all over! That’s probably why I switch genres so much, because I am absolutely omnivorous in my entertainment. I read Romance, History, SFF, YA, Non-Fiction, pretty much everything but non-Romantic contemporaries. I’m also a lifelong nerd who still watches tons of Anime, reads Manga, plays RPGs like whoa.
SciFi and Fantasy are definitely my favorites. I find it harder to get interested in stories that don’t have “in space” or “with magic” somewhere in the description, but I’ll latch onto anything that gives me a good story! For example, I’m not a big musicals person, but my favorite movie of last year was ENCANTO. I didn’t actually watch it until it came on Disney+ because I don’t typically go for generation family dramas, but once I gave it a chance, I was blown away by the incredible circular construction of the story. This is why I always try to give everything a shot, because as Uncle Iroh says, it is important to draw wisdom from many sources. Life is too short not to embrace all the good stories!
What drove your switch from traditional publishing to self-publishing? If I am correct, Eli Monpress was published by Orbit, while you published Heartstrikers.
Yes, and a lot of this has to do with my unshelvability. I loved working with Orbit, and my editor there, Devi Pillai (who’s now at Tor) is still the most editor I have ever worked with. But working with an editor means producing a reliable product, and I wasn’t so great at that. I loved experimenting and taking risks, and HEARTSTRIKERS was the biggest risk I’d ever taken at that point in my career. I mean, it was an Urban Fantasy set 100 years in the future in a magical cyberpunk version of Detroit. That was also a dragon family drama. With a beta-male main character. Who’s a pacifist.
Yeah, there is no bookstore shelf for that.
It basically came down to the fact that I was never going to be what traditional publishing wanted from me: a reliable producing product who stayed in her lane. It helped that all my self-publishing writer friends looked like they were having a lot more fun (and making a lot more money), so I made the jump and I’ve never once regretted it. I love having full control over my stories and how my books are marketed. I love being able to set my own publishing schedule, it just really suits my control-freak nature. Also, because self publishing pays so much better, I’ve been able to write the books I want to write instead of trying to write a best seller, which is an amazing freedom.
It’s definitely not for everyone. It can be really scary being solely responsible for whether a book flops or flies. But if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like being told what you have write or when you have to write it and you like running your own business, it’s a really satisfying place to be.
What were some things you were surprised at by going self-published? Anything that you miss from the traditional publishing world?
I really miss having an editor I didn’t hire. I’ve worked with a bunch of very good people, but there is nothing better for your growth as a writer than having an editor who says “this is wrong, you have to fix it” and then you have to fix it or the book doesn’t get published.
I know that goes directly against what I just said about hating people who tell me what to write, but I meant that more in terms of the genre and spirit of the piece. When it comes to actual text editing of a book, it’s very easy to get stuck on an idea that just isn’t working, and you need someone you can’t push around to make you see what you don’t want to see. I’ve worked very hard to get around this, and I think I’ve done okay, but there is no substitute for a good publishing house editor. They are the best in the world at what they do.
As for surprises from going self-pub, I’ve actually found it to be exactly like everybody said: tons of work, enough rope to hang yourself, but the money is great, and you get to be in control. That’s it in a nutshell, really.
The one thing I did learn that I don’t see talked about in the “how to self-pub” literature is how you have to take a long view on your career. When you start publishing your own stuff, there’s a ton of pressure to put out books as fast as possible because books equal income. Dear Reader, this is a trap. I’m a very fast writer, but I have very VERY high quality standards I hold myself to, because I’m building a career here.
I’m not putting out fast, sloppy books for fast, sloppy profits. I am building a brand. My whole goal from the beginning was to produce books that were identical in quality to my New York titles, because that’s what readers deserve. It’s your backlist that supports you as a fulltime writer, not new release, so make every book the absolute best book you can. Pay for editors and copy editing and proof reading and great covers. Create a quality product that will continue to sell even after you move on. That’s how you make a great career self-publishing that will continue to support you even if you’re not putting out a book every three months. Readers want good books, not fast books, and the best way to make a good living is to give your customers what they want.
I plowed through the Heartsrikers series this month, and I could not put them down. Who was your favorite dragon to write? They all have such defined personalities, was there a little bit of joy in writing each of them?
I’m so glad you loved my dragon drama! HEARTSTRIKERS was actually one of the most difficult series I’ve ever written because it’s really hard having a pacifist main character. My PARADOX books were very simple in comparison because Devi could just shoot her problems. Julius had to make friends with them, which took a LOT more clever plotting.
Complaining aside, though, HEARTSTRIKERS has some of my favorite characters I’ve ever written. I love each and every one of their growly dragon faces, especially Bob. I actually go back and read those books sometimes just for the fun of hanging out with everybody again. Sometimes I’m worried I peaked with that series, but I’m always trying to find my next Great Seer of the Heartstrikers <3.
Amelia was such a wonderful character to read; I wanted to high-five her for being awesome and simultaneously hug her for all the hard things she had to do. How did you come up with her, is she based on anyone specifically?
Amelia was one of those wonderful characters who was created to play a small role and quickly took over. I didn’t actually have a very big role planned for her at her introduction, but as soon as I started writing, I knew she was destined for greater things. This is part of what made writing HEARTSTRIKERS so hard! I got these amazing characters and then had to go change my plot to give them the roles they deserved!
She’s in my DFZ books also, by the way, so if you loved HEARTSTRIKERS, I heartily suggest giving MINIMUM WAGE MAGIC a try! It’s a fuuuuun series. I really, really loved writing it!
What interesting rabbit holes did you go down doing research for Heartstrikers? Are there any dragon myths you would love to write about in the future?
I learned a lot more about Native American dragons than I ever thought I would! I would definitely like to do more with the Chinese dragons, but I’ve got to come up with a unique place to put them. I ran my dragon idea-well dry over 8 books!
You have said that “Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest series was basically the inspiration for your writing voice.” How so?
She has my absolute favorite writing style of rich world building, funny character and situations, but deadly serious plots. Her books are very funny, but they’re not Comedies. Likewise, they have wonderful romances, but they’re not Romances. Her plots are super fun, her voice is charming and whimsical without being twee or childish. I just think she’s amazing!
She’s also the writer who really made me think I could be a writer after reading her stuff. I used to go on long walks making up stories in my head that always sounded just like hers, and you can still see a lot of her style in my work. She was the bolt of lightning that started my writing fire, and I can’t thank her enough, honestly. Her stuff is amazing, go read it!
You have done a lot of collaborations with your husband for Forever Fantasy Online. How does your partnership work? Do you discuss the intricacies of each chapter? Or do you split it up?
My husband Travis and I collaborate on every story. Pretty much all my good worldbuilding and magical system ideas were his first. We’re also both giant World of Warcraft players and have been since the game launched in 2004, so that’s a huge part of our lives. We also both loved the isekai/trapped in a game stories that were coming out all over and wanted a story like that but for our game, so FFO was the natural next step.
As for the writing itself, it was a bit of a gymnastics act passing the story between us. He’d write then I’d write and toss it back. It got really complicated at times, but Travis and I were both committed to producing the best product possible, so we got our egos out of the way and I think the finished product is amazing. It’s very much our story, and I love that.
You are releasing the first book of a new series this month, The Last Stand of Mary Good Crow. Can you tell us about this new story?
Absolutely! This book is a perfect example of me having to write what I loved. Absolutely no one was asking for a grand scale historical western, but I had this idea and these characters that just wouldn’t quit. I actually tried to write other things because I do run a business, but at the end of the day, being a writer is about being an artist. This was the art I wanted to make, and nothing else felt right until I gave in and wrote it.
I like to call it an “Epic Fantasy of the West” because it’s a huge, sprawling story across hundreds of miles and multiple POVs. It’s got world changing magic, magic crystals, warring nations. If it was set in the land of Mon’Tania instead of Montana, it would be an Epic Fantasy. The historical aspect just adds another element that makes it even more interesting because this is what could have happened if magic was real, and I’m ALWAYS down with magic being real.
I know that’s pretty vague, but there’s not much I can say without spoiling the surprises I baked into the first book. All I can say is if the idea of the discovery of magic changing the course of the Great Sioux War sounds interesting at all to you, give it a try. It’s a whirlwind of a ride!
The story is “Deadwood meets Lord of the Rings,” a fantastic mash-up. Did you always enjoy westerns?
I’ve always been attracted to the genre in theory, but I find most actual Westerns to be too macho for my tastes, probably because they were written for men by men in the 50s and 60s. Modern Westerns are much better, but they’re still not quite what I wanted and tend to be VERY bleak, which is not my cup of tea.
I wanted a story that matched the fun and guns-out drama of the earlier Westerns without making me depressed like the modern ones did. I also wanted a chance to talk about the actual West, which was incredibly diverse and open-minded despite the prejudices of the time. It was very much a culture of “it’s not who’s gonna let me, it’s who’s gonna stop me,” both for good and for bad, and I found that absolutely fascinating. An incredibly interesting time in history that was just begging to have magic thrown into the mix!
How did you come up with the magic type for The Last Stand of Mary Good Crow?
I wanted a magical system that both screamed fantasy and was analogous to the gold rush, so… magical crystals! Dangerous magical crystals that encourage reckless greed for maximum character drama.
That was the core idea. The rest of the system grew out of the characters and how I could best use magic to force them to grow into who they needed to be.
Can you tell me a bit about the women in this story? They all are such strong characters in the face of 1876 Montana. A time not known to be kind to women.
Again, this was part of what attracted me so much to the Western setting. America in 1876 was a very difficult time for anyone who wasn’t a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered man, but the West had its own rules. People there were just as closed-minded as people anywhere else in the country, but they were also under a lot of pressure from the isolation and the hardships of the landscape. When you’re in a tiny mining town, and your only dry goods store is run by a black woman, you suddenly get a lot more open minded about women in business. That openmindedness might well snap closed again the moment there’s another option, but the actual history of the West is full of women and minorities doing things that would never have been allowed back East simply because they were the ones who went and did it, and there was no one out West to stop them.
That’s the dream of the West. The idea that you can just go out there and do anything, get rich, get land, make a new future that was never possible in your old life! That’s what these books are really about: that magic of the frontier. Also the tragedy and conflict that dream created for the people who already lived on the plains. There’s so much good in the dream of the West and so, so much bad, and the way it all piles together into a messy heap is what made this setting so attractive to me as a writer. I just loved it.
Lastly, what are you working on next?
More Mary Good Crow! I just finished my final draft of the second book last week, and I’m about to being my big clean up edit, which hopefully means book 2 will be out this year!
The second book is where the rubber hits the road on a series. The first book is all fun new ideas, but book 2 is where all of those plans actually have to work, and I’m pleased to report I’m really, really happy with how the second book turned out! I think this is going to be an amazing series, and I can’t wait to write more of it!
Thank you so much for having me! I hope you’ll give THE LAST STAND OF MARY GOOD CROW a try when it comes out on June 1!