Finnian Burnett

Author, Educator, Cat Person

​Welcome to the 5 Minutes Series. Each week, I’ll ask five questions of some of my favorite authors, editors, publishers, and other industry professionals. This week I’m talking with JM Landels, author of The Allaigna’s Song trilogy and one of the masterminds behind the illustrious publisher Pulp Literature.

You’re a writer, a publisher, a swordfighter, a mom, and I still see your name as a guest speaker for writing events all over Canada. Do you have a magic trick for handling it all?

Ha! A magic trick would be sooo nice. I really don’t know how I handle it – I just do. And sometimes I don’t. I’ve never been very good at focusing on a single thing. It seems I’ve always got to have several balls in the air, and yeah, sometimes I drop one, but I catch it on the bounce and muddle on.

I find I manage best when I get into a schedule. For example, on weekday mornings, I garden before breakfast, write between 10 and noon – usually with my Pulp Lit partner-in-crime Mel Anastasiou – and use afternoons for editing, accounting, emailing, etc, in between teaching riding lessons and running my farm, Cornwall Ridge.  I teach Mounted Combat on weekends, so that’s a pretty discrete time chunk. My kids are adults now, so being a mum is a benefit rather than a time sink, especially since my two youngest manage the day-to-day operations of our farm.

Of course the writing events throw a huge spanner into all of that. But since I have new book out, I’ve decided to go all out on in-person appearances this year. I’ll be in Montana, Winnipeg, Calgary, Pentiction, Kansas City, and Portland this year, as well as at several lower mainland events.  Lucky I’ve got those daughters to teach classes and run the farm in my absence!

Can you tell me a little about Allaigna’s Song and what inspired those books?

The character of Allaigna came to me as a fully formed heroine – a warrior and a performer with the illicit ability to sing music into magic – and I wanted to write her backstory. How did she grow into the woman she is? It’s essentially a bildungsroman.

The first scene starts with a portrait of Allaigna, her parents, and her baby brother.  I envisioned that portrait, and all the family tensions it contained, and wrote out from there. I started the first book when my kids were quite young, and a lot of the early writing was me processing thoughts and feelings about motherhood and family.  I was a childbirth educator and a doula at the time, so birth and babies come into the books a lot. The magic system based on music draws on my time fronting punk/indie/metal bands in the 90s.

There are three main POV characters: Allaigna, her mother Lauresa, and her grandmother Irdaign. Irdaign is a midwife and a seer, with an imperfect window on the future. It’s a gift and burden.  Her Sight allows her to prevent her husband’s death when the rest of his family is assassinated; but it also forces her to make choices she would not otherwise even consider, such as abandoning her daughter to the care of her husband’s second wife.

Allaigna’s mother, Lauresa, went missing en route to her wedding in a foreign country. Her sections in the first book tell what actually happened. It’s the most ‘action-y’ part of the first novel, with horse chases, bandits, perilous terrain, and a love story. In the second and third novels, Allaigna takes over the high action, with Lauresa’s conflicts shifting to the parental and political.

I have an image of Pulp Literature starting in a smoky tavern with werewolves plotting in the corner as you and your colleagues discuss the need for a place for quality Canadian stories. What made you start Pulp Literature and where do you see it going from here?

Haha, I like that story – maybe we should stick to it.  In fact, the only part of the image that’s accurate is that there was beer involved.  Mel Anastasiou, Susan Pieters, and I were sitting on Mel’s deck on a lovely July day in 2013, drinking beer and lamenting the lack of venues for genre short fiction in this country. Fireside magazine had launched not too long previously with a Kickstarter campaign, and we thought, ‘we can try that’. We ran a Kickstarter to fund the first issue, snagged my friend CC Humphreys as our feature author, put out a call for submissions, and we were up and running. And here we are, 38 issues and nearly 10 years later. 

Where’s it going from here? I don’t imagine much will change in the format or mandate. There’s an impulse to do something big and showy for our 10th anniversary, but we haven’t thought about what. We’ve got Robert J Sawyer as our feature author for issue 40, and we’ve got you as our feature author for the 10th anniversary issue, so that’s pretty awesome. (Ed. Note. Having just been mentioned in the same sentence as the “Dean of Canadian Science Fiction,” I am now dead. A bot is finishing this interview for me.)

If you could spend a day picking the brain of any living writer, who would it be and why?

I’m going to MisCon this month and CJ Cherryh will be there, so I’m hoping to get to pick her brain for a few minutes at least. Her books had a huge impact on me in my teens. The Morgaine Chronicles are probably why I ended up writing epic fantasy, and the Chanur series are some of my all-time favourite SF. I picked up The Gate of Ivrel the other day – just to refresh my memory because I hadn’t read it since the 80s – and I was swept away all over again. I read 50 pages just sitting at my desk, unable to stop turning pages. It’s so masterful that it’s hard to believe it was her first published book. She has an ability to transport you into a completely alien world and invest you in its politics and people in a way that seems utterly effortless. She’s incredibly prolific and all her books are superb science fiction and fantasy.

What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were just starting out?

The first draft is allowed to suck.  I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was about four years old. But despite some success writing in school and university, I could never manage to write a complete novel, or even a short story. I’d get about two pages in and start to self-edit.  Then, around 2003, I went to a retreat led by Dale Adams Segal, which introduced me to her Hour Stories cards. The process of writing furiously for three 20-minute stretches, and then reading out loud, was transformational. I do almost all my first draft writing this way, and I allow my writing to be complete garbage if it needs to be to get words on the page – because I know I will fix it in post.

Thank you! JM Landels can be found on the web here.

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