In this secondary world fantasy novel, Look to the Sun is about the city of Sanmarian that sits on a powder keg of protest when the National People’s Voice party’s fascist activities take to the streets. At the heart of this intense story is a beautiful tale of survival and community with a hopeful love story at its core between main characters Beo and Rose.
I’m thrilled to have author Emmie Mears on the blog on this book day to talk about world-building, story craft, city planning, and their publishing journey.
Crafting Look to the Sun
What came first: the characters, the world, the political conflict, or something else entirely?
That’s a good question! I think the general feeling of the world came first—I knew I wanted to write something that made me feel like I did reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind, a book that feels like fantasy even though it’s not fantasy. Look to the Sun is definitely speculative, being set in a second world (sharp-eyed readers might recognize a much-mutated reference to an event in Tidewater, the second book in my epic fantasy trilogy, which is set in the same world but a few thousand years before), but there isn’t overt magic. I think Beo and Rose grew out of that organically, and when I wrote it, my eye was most definitely on the rising far-right fringe in the US that was moving into the mainstream even in 2015.
It was important to me to establish a queer-norm world, which is key, even though the book obviously deals with a major shift as the fascist party that has been in control of Sanmarian for fifteen years tightens its grip and grows bold enough to escalate to outright violence.
What cities inspired the design of Sanmarian?
I spent almost two years in Kraków, Poland, which definitely played into the city’s organization even though Kael isn’t an allegory for Poland intentionally despite the relevance and parallels of current events. The central market square is a focal point in Kraków, and anyone with a background in Slavic languages will recognize the Polish influence of Plax Rynka—while I didn’t create a conlang for Kaeli language, there are recognizable echoes of both Romance and Slavic languages. (I love a genitive case—gorgeous grammatical function in three of the languages I speak.)
I’ve not actually been to Barcelona, and Sanmarian isn’t modeled after it, but what was adjacent to Barcelona was the way that city became a character in Zafón’s novel—the city itself has a soul, secrets, scars. That particular feeling was what I was aiming for with Sanmarian.
What kind of research did you do for this novel, if any?
I don’t remember doing much. My degree is in history, and when I was in Poland, I studied under Professor Annamaria Orla-Bukowska at the Jagiellonian University for many of my classes about the sociology of fascism, and while that had an influence, a lot of my ruminations in the background of writing were due to current events and watching those studies play out in real time.
Are you a planner, a panster, or somewhere in between?
I think I’m somewhere in between, though I lean toward planner. Pantsing things has never worked out for me, so I usually have a big picture outline with the main turning points, both plot and emotional, and at some point I usually end up with a scene-by-scene route map.
The pantser bit comes in organically—often times, when a story starts to come together and get fleshed out, my mind makes connections that work better than what I had originally scribbled in my outline, and I’ll diverge when I think it’s a stronger choice. I like to emphasize authorial agency in writing, which is not as sexy as the idea of having a muse whispering in my ear, but ultimately, no matter how those words get there in our perception, as authors, we’re the ones who write them and own them and change them and edit them and yeet them out into the world. I think some of my blending of styles speaks to that belief—sometimes if things go off the rails, you’ve got to bust out the squirt bottle until they get back on track.
The Publishing Journey
In terms of the number of books you’ve written, where does Look to the Sun fall?
Look to the Sun was my tenth completed novel of now twenty-two, almost twenty-three.
It’s really weird to look at those numbers, because my brain just goes, “Hmm, sounds fake.” But it’s true! A couple of them will never see the light of day (for VERY good reason), but the rest are either in the pipeline or already out in the wild.
What are you looking forward to most with regards to this re-release?
This book is such a strange one, because when it came out, it was too topical. It first came out the week of the 2016 election in the US, and let’s just say it was a bit uncomfortable.
I was doing first pass pages on the new edition in January 2021 during the insurrection and its, which was also deeply surreal, to the point that I added a substantial author’s note to the new edition. I think what I’m looking forward to most is just to give this book a chance to find its audience. I don’t blame anyone for preferring to face plant into a sofa when it first came out—I was also face planted into my own sofa—and while things are still most definitely not peachy, there is more space to process at least some of the trauma of the past few years, though much of it is still ongoing.
This book, for me, was written in hope for survival and acknowledging that not everyone gets that privilege. Writing that sentence in the second year of a global pandemic is a bit on the nose, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Queer survival in particular was important to me to show. This book is less about revolutionaries and more about those realising the water is boiling around them and trying to get out of the pot.
What are you working on now?
So much, ha. I am juggling a bunch of projects under different pen names. I’ve just wrapped content edits on a YA contemporary paranormal, the third novel in the Stonebreaker epic fantasy trilogy has been turned in for publication in 2023 (so far away!), and I’m revising an adult contemporary fantasy about language and identity and otherness, particularly Gaelic, which is exciting. And on top of all that, I’ve just launched an adult fantasy romance as Sylvie Greenhart with gods and mortals and elves because FUN.
Are there any books you’re looking forward to? Who are you reading now?
Oof, like many of us, my TBR pile is a mountain, but I reckon this should give a good overview of the, erm, breadth of my current forays: The Gaelic Otherworld (John Gregorson Campbell and Ronald Black), Cailèideascop (Daibhidh Eyre), Roots (Alex Haley), Age of Stone (Jez Cajiao), Water Witchcraft (Annwyn Avalon), System Apocalypse series (Tao Wong), I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder (Sarah Kurchak), and Marketing Strategy for Authors (also Tao Wong, who is a man of many talents).
I am, for real, at least 20% into all of those, and typing all of that out made me realise just how much I need to sit my butt down and finish some.
Next up is a litany of books, and I’m way late to the party, but: Gideon the Ninth (Tamsyn Muir), A Song for a New Day (Sarah Pinsker), Midlife Dawn (N.Z. Nasser), The Unbroken (C.L. Clark), The Hidden Life of Trees (Peter Wohlleben), and Anna Ruadh (Gaelic translation of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, translated by Mòrag Anna NicNèill)
Emmie Mears is the author of over ten adult fantasy novels, including A Hall of Keys and No Doors, the Ayala Storme series, and the Stonebreaker series.
Their bilingual work as M Evan MacGriogair can be found on Tor.com, Steall Magazine, and Uncanny Magazine along with poetry in The Poets’ Republic and elsewhere. Their novelette Seonag and the Sea-wolves was longlisted for a Hugo award in 2020.
An autistic queer author, singer, and artist who sings and writes in Gàidhlig and in English, they sing in two Gaelic choirs both in Scotland and internationally, and they are an award-winning Gaelic solo singer. They live in Partick with two cats and dreams gu leòr.