In the Author Spotlight this week is HOLLOW ROAD author, Dan Fitzgerald, talking about his experience towards publication, and finding the balance in creating believable and representative characters with the help of a sensitivity reader.
Hi, Dan, first let me say a big thank you for taking part in the Book Blurb Q&A series. To start with, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself?
I turned 50 on September 17, the day my debut novel was born, so I’m now living my second life. I am a high school French teacher, I do yoga almost daily, I grow vegetables in my community garden in Washington, DC, and I live with my wife, twin boys, and two cats named Happy and Overlord. I am obsessed with language, nature, and the mysteries of the human mind. I am also a huge fan of Vietnamese food, and sour beer is my jam.
What drew you to writing fantasy as opposed to any other genre?
I have always been drawn to the idea of another world beyond this one. Like any proper nerd, I played D&D and read Tolkein from a pretty early age, but I took somewhat of a hiatus from classical nerdery in my college years. I studied medieval French literature in grad school, which only deepened my love of stories that whisper of a distant, magical past. I wrote a lot of crime fiction before I tried my hand at fantasy, but it was often inspired by some of the narrative structures of medieval stories.
I started writing fantasy in part because I wanted to reconnect with the feeling of mysterious and wondrous exploration I got through classic fantasy lit and the TTRPG experience. But I found something missing in classic fantasy—it was almost always too epic for my taste, not to mention too male-oriented and heteronormative. I started reading more contemporary fantasy, mostly written by women, which opened my eyes to what the genre could be. Devin Madson and K.S. Villoso in particular inspired me with their writing and vision. I wanted to write something that would give readers what I love about the old-school genre, but on a smaller scale, and with more modern sensibilities. The kind of book I’m always longing to read.
Would you like to tell us a little bit about The Maer Cycle and Hollow Road in particular?
The trilogy starts with a simple premise: what if the monsters of legend were more like us than different? I’ve always hated the Evil Race trope, so this is my answer to that. In Hollow Road, a group of three friends are taking the body of an old friend home for burial when they encounter the Maer, beast-men of legend, and the world they thought they knew is turned upside down. Their journey takes them deep into the mountains to Castle Maer, where they face a reckoning for the results of their first encounter with the Maer. It’s a book about friendship, but also about how we see the Other, and how that can change, in a process I call de-othering.
The de-othering process continues in The Archive, which takes place among the Maer as they seek the lost library of their ancient civilization, and encounter the Wild Maer who live above it. The Place Below, which takes place twenty years later, features a protagonist of mixed heritage who seeks the ultimate origins of the Maer in a long-buried mine, which is inhabited by the dreaded Skin Maer, and an undead antagonist who may hold the answers to the secrets she has been seeking.
I mentioned earlier how I am bothered by the heteronormativity in a lot of fantasy. I have many family members, friends, colleagues, and students in the LGBTQIA+ communities, and the notion of a fantasy world with only cis/heterosexual characters is abhorrent to me. All my books have queer characters, though as a straight person I don’t write about their experience of queerness per se, since that’s not my story to tell.
When editing The Archive, I decided I needed a sensitivity reader, as there are many queer characters and relationships in the book, and I wanted to make sure my representation was positive. I worked with an incredible blogger and sensitivity reader named Arina Nabais, whose blog post on queer representation in fiction inspired me to seek a sensitivity reader in the first place. She helped me fine-tune a number of details in my portrayals of characters and relationships in the book, and honestly that process was transformative for me as a writer, and as a person. I am sure there are areas in which I could have done better, and I look forward to hearing from my readers on that account. I’m not going to lie, I’ve lain awake at night worrying about how my representation could be harmful, but then I think how harmful it is to write books in which queer identities don’t exist at all, and I sleep a little less fitfully.
Can you tell us a little about what the road to publication was like, for you?
It’s been a long road to be sure. I wrote 6 unpublished novels before Hollow Road found its way into Shadow Spark’s query box this March. Just as Covid hit and shut down life as we know it, I got my first publishing contract, for the Maer Cycle trilogy. For over twenty years I wrote, queried (not particularly well, I’m afraid), got shut down, gave a few copies to friends and family, and moved on to the next book. The process of querying as a writer is soul-crushing, and my heart goes out to the folks still out there in the trenches. But hopefully they will see a little bit of hope in my story. I kept trying different things, kept writing, kept improving my craft, and eventually I found my match.
Let me tell you about Shadow Spark. Spoiler alert: they’re AMAZING. Mandy and Jess are two of the smartest, most ambitious, hardest-working people I know. From the first e-mail response, I felt seen, for the very first time, by someone in the publishing industry. They had read my book—they had liked it—they could even tell me who their favorite character was (Finn)! It was a dream come true. And then when they told me they wanted to publish the trilogy in 3-month increments, I realized the job of work ahead of me.
Hollow Road had gone through 10+ rounds of editing from me before I sent it to them, and I did a full round of editing with each of them, with multiple rounds of self-editing between each round. I enjoyed the experience, as each of them had different takes, different suggestions, and the book grew as a result of that process. I am now almost finished with the final edits for The Archive, and the process will soon begin again with The Place Below. It’s a grueling pace, but I love Shadow Spark’s ambition, and they have inspired me to write more, and better, than I ever have before. And I love the idea of a trilogy where you don’t have to wait a year or more between books. The entire trilogy will be published in the space of 6 months, so if someone likes Hollow Road, hopefully they won’t forget it before the next book comes out.
And finally, could you tell us what you are currently working on and what’s up next for you?
So many things. I am at the halfway point on the draft of a new fantasy, tentatively called The Living Waters, about a group of painted-faced nobles on a guided river trip that takes a turn toward the weird. It features mysterious swirls in the water, thin river ogres, and what one character calls “men made out of water.” It has a completely different feel from the Maer Cycle, with less darkness and more wonder, though it has its share of dark and unsettling moments. The book takes place in the South, a place referenced in the trilogy but barely glimpsed, but it feels like another world. It may be standalone, or it may be part of a duology or trilogy; that remains to be seen. I hope to publish it late 2021.
Beyond that, I have several Maer Cycle related projects in mind. One is a standalone/prequel-esque novel(la?) about Theo, who is dead when Hollow Road begins. Another is a trilogy set almost two thousand years before the trilogy, which has got me burning with excitement, so it may leapfrog some other projects, depending on how everything goes. One thing’s for sure: my writing journey has only just begun.
Thank you so much for having me, and thanks for your continued efforts to support SFF books!
Dan Fitzgerald is a fantasy writer living in Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When he is not writing, he might be gardening, doing yoga, cooking, or listening to French music.
He writes fantasy in part because the state of the world demands an escape, but also because fantasy provides another lens through which to view what we are living now. Part mirror, part magnifying glass, part prism.
He is fascinated by hidden and forgotten places, be they in the backyard or in the mountains of an imagined world.