Ilana C. Myer’s debut novel Last Song Before Night is out now! In the world of Last Song, art and magic are intertwined, and poets must recover their lost enchantments in order to avert cataclysm—at great cost to themselves. Ff you live in the Northeast, you can catch her on tour with Seth Dickinson, the author of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, but in the meantime she took to reddit to talk about writing, music, and swordfighting, Check out the highlights below!
What is the best advice she’s ever received from another writer?
I’ve read a lot of books about writing over the years and what became most clear is that every writer’s process is different. For me what has resonated most is Write Like a Motherfucker because it’s about determination. About fighting through the fear and perfectionism and self-doubt, getting knocked down, and getting up again. That is what I’ve most needed, when it comes to writing—to remember, as the author Cheryl Strayed writes, that it means being “a warrior and a motherfucker.” Our stories are important, however flawed they might emerge from us, and they won’t write themselves. (As for flaws: that’s what revisions are for.)
What does Myer’s daily writing schedule look like, and how does she manage writing/life balance?
For me, the challenges of making space for writing have shifted with time. I wrote Last Song Before Night through most of my twenties, first when I was working long hours as an administrative assistant in New York and later, while building a journalism career in Jerusalem. Consequently, I could write fiction only at stolen moments in evenings, weekends, or holidays. Any shred of down time was an opportunity to work on the book. That’s why it took seven years to complete the novel. Today, circumstances are different—my husband is now a web developer and earns enough to support us both. We can make this work for now, because we have no children and live frugally. Now the greatest pressure is to deserve this tremendous gift he’s given me—the gift of time to write.
How did she find an agent?
Querying agents can be a long haul, and if you think you have a viable manuscript, it’s important to query widely and not get too discouraged. I found agents by googling, and received many rejections before I found representation–but my agent is one of the best in the business, so it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t find someone right away.
What are her biggest influences?
I spent my teen years and the bulk of my twenties in Jerusalem, so it’s inevitable that my experience of the place would influence my writing. This influence is in large part on the capital city of Tamryllin and its Mediterranean atmosphere, and was not deliberate. I just soaked in the atmosphere of the city as I was writing the story.
Given that Last Song Before Night is largely about music, what was she listening to as she wrote?
It’s true Last Song Before Night is about music, though at heart it’s about art as a whole. On the other hand, music is a huge part of my life (even though I do not, alas, play an instrument or anything like that) and I listen to music when I write to get myself into the zone. I’ll share with you what inspired me when I first began writing this book, which was in 2004. I was in a really bad apartment situation with roommates, and every evening would retreat to my room and listen to Loreena McKennitt’s “Parallel Dreams” as I worked out the concept for the book and prologue. (That prologue ended up being moved to almost the end of the book as a late chapter.) So if any music influenced the genesis of this book, it was that album, especially Huron Beltane Fire Dance.
Seth Dickinson dropped in with a long question: Do you see the social game as a big part of exploring who you are? How do we become ourselves, instead of someone we’re told to be?
Seth, this question is so thought-provoking! I’m going to come to it at a slightly different angle than the way you phrased it, as I don’t see it so much as a social game. Perhaps the main thing that drives me to write is a fascination with the human experience in all its facets—and I believe there are far more facets to it than most fiction allows for, perhaps because we fear being too offensive or revealing too much about ourselves. I wanted to dive deep and come up with the darkest heart of my characters. It is what I live for in reading and storytelling. If there’s a locked door I am warned away from, that’s the one I want to open. So it is with character development too. I want to uncover what lies behind the locked door.
And I love this question: How do we become ourselves, instead of someone we’re told to be? Sometimes it’s a massive act of courage. Sometimes we have no choice. I’m not sure if one precludes the other. One thing is certain: a lot of pain is ahead—both of loss and of transformation. That’s what someone has to be prepared for if they are committed to becoming who they are against forces that would dictate otherwise.
How did Myer’s study of sword fighting affect the novel?
I studied historical fencing for a couple of years. It was purely with the intent to educate myself as a writer of fantasy, but in the process I learned so much more. One of the things I learned is that I had a great deal of anger which, for some reason, made the broadsword cathartic. It affected my writing in the ways one might expect: It gave me some idea of technical realities, and allowed me to more clearly imagine what a character’s physical experience might be like, at least from a standpoint of technique. (Not, of course, in terms of actual combat.)
As for the obligatory whiskey question:
…I really like the port cask Glenmorangie, which is sadly difficult if not impossible to find!
And finally, does she have any thoughts on “entertainment” versus “literary achievement” in the modern novel?
I have a problem with the division between “literary” and “entertainment” in the publishing industry as it is often arbitrary. Often it seems that “literary” is synonymous with “tedious” and I believe that is not at all what it should mean. I believe a true literary work is something that was crafted with care, that has a soul and something to say. And if it’s done well, and the reader is willing to give it their own care and attention, it shouldn’t be tedious at all. But instead there are a lot of books that are called “literary” because they are set in suburbia and have no plot, or take much longer to get somewhere than a genre novel. These are arbitrary distinctions.
If you’re wondering what you should be writing, my answer would be–don’t think too much about what other people seem to want. If you care about what you are working on, that will shine through in the work.