I was recently reading a short interview with writer Claudia Rankine in which she’s asked about her ideal reading experience: she responded:
“I love when someone enters the room when I am reading. I see their lips moving but I am now in another country, perhaps even in another century. I am fighting both to stay where I am and to regain composure in the present day, hour, moment. It’s a struggle within myself I can only locate with books I cannot leave behind.”
When I read this, I felt an instant kinship as this is also something I’m after, particularly when I’m reading fiction, even more particularly when I’m reading speculative, fantasy, and science-fiction, as I want to be transported and wholly so. This for me is where the magic of reading truly is, when a story can remove you from your life, from the world as you know it and envelope you into the pages its world, a world someone else created entirely anew. Enter ‘Master of One’, the debut YA novel of collaborative writers. Set in a world ruled by a cruel Queen set on immortality at any cost, an unlikely group of “reluctant heroes” set out on an epic quest that takes them into ancient fae ruins, beneath the city in underground tunnels, within the glitter of the Ever-Bright castle and court, as well into the darkness and despair of regret and loss, all while learning to adapt to their differences as well as their new magical companions. All things termed ‘Young Adult’ have been a balm for me as of late, whether it be measured amounts of leftover Halloween candy, Studio Ghibli films, or novels and graphic novels marked YA, such as ‘Master of One’, which was the first fiction novel I read this year that my brain allowed me to read without any issue (perhaps you know what I mean, and can relate?) Therefore, it was my honor and pleasure to spend a Zoom chat and follow up written email interview with the writers, Jadia Jones and Dani Bennett, during which they shared what inspired their interests in reading and writing fantasy, how much representation in stories matter, and our mutual love of fairy tales and silver.
Read on for more.
What were you each like as children/teens ? Were you readers ? Did you read fantasy novels? so, would you be willing to share the books of your childhood/ teenhood ?
Jaida: I was absolutely a voracious reader, beyond the point of being antisocial. It was A Huge Family Issue because whenever I went anywhere, I’d bring at least one book with me, lock myself in the bathroom, and read. I first discovered fantasy through the works of Patricia C. Wrede, Robin McKinley, and Tamora Pierce; Pierce’s Wild Magic series cemented my obsession with the genre. After devouring Pierce’s Alanna and Daine quartets, all I wanted to do was to write adventures with magic and romance and non-human magical-creature sidekicks. As an eleven year old, after my cousin wrote a letter to Tamora Pierce—we were both huge fans—she actually met with us for lunch, a moment crystallized in time for me forever, as it added such generous kindling to an already crackling fire. Her kindness, her willingness to speak to her young fans—that was magic too, real magic for the day-to-day. After that, I read whatever was in the fantasy section at my local and school library. It gave me a glorious escape from the awkwardness of being a human teenager in the late 90s and early aughts. My main sorrow is that all these romances I adored, all these fantasies I lived in, were straight ones. (That definitely made for some sexuality confusion that plagued me for years…! Representation really matters!)
Dani: We have similar origin stories! I read all the time as a child: in the bath, over family dinner, under my desk in school, by the headlights of the car behind us… When my dad kicked us outside for the summer, I would bring a stack of books and read in the backyard. I was obsessed with Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and the no-nonsense witch Morwen and tall, fiercely independent Cimorene were formative female characters for me growing up. Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle inspired my love for cowardly, vain and reluctant heroes, and Garth Nix’s Sabriel gave me the tools to understand that magic and horror are two sides of the same coin. Obsessed with the necromancer bells, also! Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series absolutely destroyed my life for a good long while. The common thread I am seeing here is that I love talking animals. (Also one day we will talk about how growing up reading exclusively Old & English writers meant taking in a lot of undigested anti-Semitism—The Witches is not okay, you guys!!)
I know you met on LiveJournal: Would you be willing to talk about what it was that drew you to one another as fellow writers ? I also know, from what you’ve shared with me, that a large portion of the beginning of your relationship was spent long distance- did that inform how you communicated / informed your ability to be able to collaborate in your writing projects?
Jaida: Back in those days, I was lonely, confused, and utterly miserable in college. I continued to seek out whatever escape I could find, and LiveJournal was the best way to find others who were equally passionate about escapism. And wow, how I miss LiveJournal’s commitment to centering the written word! These days, most of social media is driven by images, but on LiveJournal, writing and sharing writing was a primary driver of interaction and connection. For me, I have always been seeking a way to make writing less of a lonely endeavor and more of an exciting, surprising collaboration. (It’s dangerous to go alone! Take me!) This may be because I’m a Sagittarius sun, so I have difficulty with commitment. Having an extra element of not knowing exactly what comes next in a story keeps me obsessed, involved, and desperate to find out more. When Dani and I first started talking, we learned that we loved so many of the same tropes, character types, plot devices, and fantasy worlds, and once we started writing together, the spark I felt was unlike any other. I became addicted to telling stories with her, to that element of surprise she brought to the stories we cooked up together.
Dani: I was in high school when I first started posting to and maintaining my own LiveJournal. At that time Jaida was a fairly big cheese in the corner of LJ that I liked to hang out in, so I was aware of her existence before I think she even knew I existed. I always dreamed of being able to spark her attention with my own stories and ideas, and a mutual artist friend finally pushed me to comment on one of Jaida’s posts! When we first started talking, I would read and offer feedback on the projects Jaida was writing. Eventually this progressed to us writing together as we came to appreciate more and more the things we had in common!
Something I found interesting when we were speaking in our zoom – Jaida, you mentioned ‘needing’ that audience of the internet when writing, how you were serializing writing on LJ and how this immediate feedback helped you write … I find this so fascinating, I feel like part of the ‘mythology’ of being a writer is that it’s often marred by being a life of isolation and ‘torment,’ perhaps more so than other fields of the arts, and yet in this era, with the internet, writers are often more able to have their writing or their writing in progress more accessible publicly if they so choose. Can you speak to this a bit more especially in the frame of collaboration which is initially how this conversation was sparked when we were speaking?
Jaida: I cut my writer’s eyeteeth in the world of fanfiction, where you could write a few pages, post them to fanfiction.net or LiveJournal, and immediately have interaction and feedback from strangers all around the world. Once I experienced what that was like, it was honestly impossible for me to return to a world of writing alone, without regular outside input. I know this definitely drives Dani a little bit crazy sometimes, since I’m always pestering her about sharing our drafts-in-progress with friends/writing group pals/etc. (Shout-out to Jean, who often gets our chapters during this period, which I like to call “Please Validate Jaida Time.”) For better or worse, this is who I am as a storyteller. I love all aspects of collaboration, from writing with a partner who keeps the plot interesting, to working with editors who improve a first draft immeasurably, to connecting with readers who show me things I haven’t noticed, pick out themes I wasn’t able to identify, and ultimately also strengthen my writing.
Dani: This is one area where we diverge, because I am very much a “set it and forget it” kind of writer. The story feels most alive to me when we’re in the process of telling it, whether that’s drafting out a first look or doing revisions for the umpteenth time. The feedback that I get from Jaida is basically all I need to feel satisfied, so the collaborative process for me provides exactly the amount of feedback I crave. Writing is definitely lonely, so it’s incredibly fulfilling and motivating to have another person to talk to, who cares about your characters and their world as much as you do! I’m a deeply private person though so to be fair if I could hock stories like grenades into the world and then run away before the blast, I would do that in a heartbeat!
On the topic of collaboration, could you each discuss what it has been like to write this book together? What did a typical writing day look like? Did you write in the same room together?
Jaida: We will speak about this a lot, or at least I will—though it’s a complex subject for Dani—but we wrote this book the year after she was diagnosed with Stage 2B estrogen positive breast cancer. After a terrible year of two chemotherapy courses, a mastectomy, radiation therapy, and countless oncology appointments, screenings, and tests. Her bones were scanned. She was injected with dyes and poisons. Her skin was marked with radiation tattoos. Our entire world was thrown into chaos. Cancer is terrifying and all-consuming, and once again, I did what I always do when the going gets tough: I disappeared into fantasy, writing battles that were equally terrifying as fighting a deadly disease, but somehow more straightforward, and with magic to guide the way.
Dani: I think it’s easier for us to write in separate rooms, something about the act of creation is easier to do while unobserved. Jaida always keeps us on course and full steam ahead. She has a work ethic that awes and astounds me even to this day, and I am so grateful for is because I would get nothing done without her. Cancer especially made me want to give up on existence and just revert to being a giant hairless baby, and Jaida really kept me focused and gave me something to concentrate on during the long, dark winter of treatment we went through together.
Were there particular challenges to writing YA when you have been writing fantasy for an older audience?
Dani: My experience was that there’s a lot more focus on propulsion in YA. There’s a little more wiggle room to stretch your toes and take your time in an adult fantasy, whereas a YA fantasy really has to grab you and go. Both of us have a background in writing emotional, character-driven scenes, which some readers love and some detest! So for Master of One, we really had to teach ourselves the new skill of going over every chapter and asking ourselves “what happens in this chapter?” I’m constantly looking for ways to improve my ability to grip a reader and draw them in, and I think YA is excellent for honing those skills specifically because it demands a lot.
Jaida: I will probably be saying this until the day I die, but plot is not even remotely my strong suit. It is where I feel weakest. If a book could just be characters’ emotions and feelings and thoughts and interpersonal struggles without a care toward arcs and action, I’d be the happiest turd in the litterbox. Alas, it is not so, and in YA especially, as Dani already said, there needs to be very clear propulsion from chapter to chapter. But one of the many reasons we’re both so passionate about the genre is because we wanted to see our queer, disabled selves in the YA fantasy section, since that wasn’t representation we had on the shelves when we were the target age for young adult fiction! (Also, one of my eternal struggles is not overly identifying with and exploring the motivations for a story’s villain, delving so deeply that suddenly I’m saying “What if the villain joins the main group? What if the villain was a hero all along?” which…no. Having a clear cut, out-and-out enemy is definitely an important part of the YA fantasy genre. The villain can’t only be imperialism, although that is certainly one of the main villains in Master of One.)
One of the things I really enjoyed about this book is that there is SO much inside of it, there’s a slow burn Queer romance, true and horrific danger, coming of age arc, and perhaps my favorite, ‘puzzle box’ landscapes in the fae ruins and at the Ever-Bright castle. Can you talk about the writing of these? They were so smart and clever and I really loved picturing Rags struggling his way through them. Did you have any ‘patron saints’ that you referenced when writing these scenes that you’d be willing to share your inspiration from?
Dani: I grew up playing a lot of video games, picking my way through virtual dungeons in Final Fantasy or the Legend of Zelda. Exploring those enchanted virtual spaces gave me a solid foundation to really nail down the small, granular details of the tombs, ruins and sewers our book explores! I imagined myself as an RPG protagonist more than once, and picturing the obstacles I might face along with what I’d enjoyed playing through in the past.
Jaida: Unfortunately, my visual and verbal brains do not communicate well with each other. Over the course of writing Master of One, my BloodMilk collection grew, and the pieces were honestly what I would look to whenever I wanted to describe silver’s fluidity, grace, and power. I surrounded myself with what sumptuous aesthetic treasures I could, and would reference I Do Declare or Nuit Clothing Atelier as much as BloodMilk in order to really nail the aesthetic details of the particular fantasy world I craved inhabiting. I need those references!
Mirrors and silver play such an important role as magical elements throughout the book, the Mirror ‘shards’ echo one of my oldest and most beloved fairy tales, ‘The Snow Queen’, while personally silver is very magic and dear to me. While this world is very much your own, I loved the slight hat tip to fairy tales and silver lore from our world and was hoping you could speak to why these elements were important to you to include.
Dani: Fairy tales are baked into our bones! They exist across the world, across time. I think there’s something powerful about these ancient stories we pass down again and again. Some soul-part of you recognizes the familiar beats and resonates. For me, fairy tales were my first glimpse into a world of magic, a world where anything could happen. Which is very scary but very wonderful at the same time—which is why I tend to think that the best fantasies are also horror, because that fear/awe response comes from the same place in my gut.
Jaida: I grew up with my grandmother’s collection of fairy tale books, which were specifically the Blue/Green/Red/Yellow Fairy Books compiled and edited by Lang and Alleyne in the late 1800s. My favorite of the stories in those books were the ones I didn’t see retold often—not Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella, but “Toads and Diamonds” and “The Tinder Box”—especially because so many of them had dark, menacing edges, countless shadows, dangers magical and mundane. In those stories, I discovered that prejudices, closed-mindedness, and human cruelty are as deadly as any witch’s spell. Evil rulers tend not to have magic of their own, but they wield hatred as surely as any weapon. I was always especially fascinated by the Snow Queen and her particular brand of magic, as there was something so tangible about the way she exerted control over those unlucky enough to fall under her spell. She literally inserted shards of glass into their hearts, an image that has stuck with me ever since, and which keeps playing out in the stories I tell. Somehow, that’s been interwoven with my other memories from that time, specifically my grandmother’s entrancing collection of silver jewelry and my father’s small collection of beautifully carved canes. These talismans of personal power definitely came into play when we dreamed up the silver fae fragments! They had to be silver because there’s something very soft about it, despite it being a precious metal, a liminal property that allows it to be both strong and brittle, liquid and solid.
Rags really resonated with me-his insecurity and willingness to protect those he cares about- I understand that there may be a bit (or more than a bit) of you both in every character, but I was wondering if there was one or more that resonated with you more than the others and why, if you were willing to share?
Dani: I really relate to Inis! How she deals with her problems just by putting her head down and going numb to her surroundings, getting through the day to day. Which is basically what I did to get through cancer treatment! It’s obviously not a state that can sustain itself long term. And then obviously her anger and PTSD, those are both things I had to contend with once my cancer treatment was over and I had to go back to living my life. Inis starts to take back the pieces of herself that she’s discarded in order to make her life livable, and what will happen if some of the parts no longer fit? Obviously that’s something I relate to my cancer experience, but I think anyone who’s lived through trauma can relate to that struggle. How to find the new normal?
Jaida: Yes yes yes! I also relate to Inis because so much of her struggle (and why she was so incredibly cathartic to write) is figuring out how to live with her anger. To feel again without letting anger consume her. There are definitely character elements key to each of the POV characters that resonate profoundly with me. Cab and his guilt, the shame he feels for his past choices; Rags’s gallows’ humor, laughing because otherwise he’d be screaming and crying, so he’d rather fucking laugh… Einan’s determination and bravery are qualities I’m striving to embody, so she’s more of an aspirational character for me! And Somhairle, our chronic paingel, as I like to call him. We expanded his perspective during our edits last year, and writing about him became important and cathartic for me. Somhairle is part ode to my experience as someone living with chronic pain and part ode to my father, who suffers from the rare degenerative autoimmune disease I inherited, albeit in a much milder form. Unlike me, my father was treated quite poorly by his parents, his condition ignored, until it was too late to do anything to avoid very obvious physical deformities and constant pain. Throughout my childhood I was aware that he was sick and would not get better; despite that, for many years, he lived a life committed to what he loved, to being the very best at his craft. It’s so, so important to me, and always has been, to see complex characters in fantasy stories who are vital players, involved in the adventure.
Another element of the book that hooked me throughout was the slow burn romance. The romance wasn’t at the heart of the story, it was a vein in the heart of the story, but I’m a lover of love and always drawn to these themes in books. Interestingly, there’s often a ‘saving’ in fantasy, where one character saves the other, but in this book, it felt all the central characters all had each other’s backs, even if there were some very real reasons for them to initially distrust each other. Can you speak to these choices and why they were important to you?
Jaida: I’m super lucky with my day job, in which I get to work with a different group of five teenage poets from around the country every year. I absolutely drew so much of my inspiration for Master of One’s rag-tag gang of heroes from these poets because they are endlessly inspiring. Especially in 2020, a year in which hope feels increasingly threadbare and tattered, their resilience, strength, ingenuity, and determination are actual magic, a balm for the shattered soul. They’re literally out there juggling all the demands of school with the increasing despair of our social and political scene while simultaneously forging bonds regardless of their differences, sometimes because their differences make them stronger, and working together on the ground to ensure a better future. Each year, the program I work for tosses these five young strangers together, and each year, after briefly tiptoeing around the edge of shyness and awkwardness, they dive right in, able to forge the most glorious and unbreakable bond with each other.
Dani: I’m big into stories about teams. How people look after each other and work together in search of the common good and the common goal. It might seem idealistic, but I really do believe that together rather than separately is the way forward through most difficult times. I think the story in Master of One is very much about collaboration and what it means to go from thinking about yourself first to thinking about others.
There are so many folx represented in this book that aren’t represented much as the ‘heroes’ of YA fantasy: there’s the Queer romance between Rags and Tal, there’s the chronic pain that Somhairle faces, which for me meant a lot as someone who like so many others deals with a chronic issue in their life, there’s also the transgenderness of Einan that’s hinted at but. All of these folx are represented while their identity isn’t used in an exploitive way.
Jaida: I touched on this above, but I thought I was straight for so many deeply confusing and uncomfortable teenage years because the stories I loved, the romance I craved and gobbled up, the fantasy worlds for which I opened the wardrobe door, were entirely populated by heterosexual characters. (Except for the occasional queer-coded villain, of course.) Queer stories at the time were limited to the real world, and they always ended in tragedy. I wanted love and adventure, magic and magical artifacts, and the only examples I could find were focused on straight, usually able-bodied, cis couples. I had no examples of queer fantasy until much later on—and I’ll be forever grateful to Mercedes Lackey and Lynn Flewelling, who wrote the first fantasy books with queer protagonists that I discovered. (That discovery changed my life!) It’s been a lifelong dream to write young adult fantasy stories that would fill in those blanks, that would represent me: all the genderqueer, queer-queer, chronic-pain riddled parts of me. Two of my favorite people and closest friends in the world are trans women and most of my friends are queer, and I’ve always wanted that representation to be as normalized in fantasy as fae and dragons and magic potions. (The message I received as a kid was: It’s possible to imagine entirely other worlds, where mystical beasts run amok, wizards battle witches, elves and fairies live in the woods, but no gay people exist. That message, pardon my French, fucking sucks.)
Dani: Yeah!! What Jaida said, basically. All the stories I read and absorbed and inhabited growing up, the books that made me who I am, none of them had any characters like me. That seems especially unfortunate in speculative fiction, which to me was always about the furthest reaches of your wild imagination. Why shouldn’t LGBTQIA+ characters exist in stories about magic and monsters and worlds conjured from imagination? It’s so important to us to put out the kind of YA fantasy we wish we’d had to read ourselves during our teenage years. Master of One isn’t about anyone’s identity, those characters just exist, and they’re trying to save the world.
I know you commissioned other artists to help visualize the characters, to make a map of the world they inhabited and even Kelsey of I Do Declare did a cosplay of Ines. Can you talk about why it was important to you both involve other artists in your personal process / promotion of your book ?
Jaida: We first really had to begin thinking about promotion in a concrete way around March of 2020—which, coincidentally, is when we entered into lockdown in Brooklyn because of Covid-19. Since everyone in our household is elderly and/or has multiple pre-existing conditions, we’ve been in lockdown pretty much ever since. Also, at the end of May, people took to the streets all across the country—and indeed across the world—to protest anti-Black racism and violence against Black people, protests that rightfully continue to this day. It felt out of touch with reality to promote a fantasy book in this landscape. I had been lucky enough to keep my day job, working from home; many of the tattoo artists I love were facing months of shop closures and no way to pay their rents. Maybe there’s no ethical consumption in late stage capitalism, but I do like to spend all my money on art whenever possible, so we figured, hey, why not commission some amazing artists to make art for Master of One during “these unprecedented times”? That’s how we ended up asking Anka Lavriv to draw a map of the world, since we’re both complete suckers for a gorgeous fantasy map with style and a distinct aesthetic! Kelsey has likewise been so amazing and supportive. We’d earlier daydreamed the possibility of an entire Master of One themed fashion show, but the pandemic put an end to so many dreams, so that idea got reimagined into a socially distant book cast cosplay series, in which Kelsey made a dress for Inis from, I believe, antique couch upholstery fabric, as she is a literal renaissance woman. (This is extra awesome because Kelsey is sort of who we picture when we picture Inis, so that’s actually a dream come true!) Ultimately, I have to trick myself into finding the fun and excitement in everything or else I will not be able to do it. So I tried to trick myself into making book promotion, which is intrinsically terrifying to me, full of pretty visual delights that simultaneously would go toward supporting artists!
Dani: This definitely ties in to what I consider to be one of the central themes of Master of One, that community is the answer to getting through the difficult times. Just as the characters in Master of One thrive when they come together, Jaida and I only started feeling comfortable in our own skins online as artists once we had a group of kindred spirits around us. We are fortunate enough to be friends with some seriously talented artists and makers, and we wanted to showcase their awesome work at every step of promoting our own. Because of the nature of the internet, writing online is often most impactful when there’s an arresting image to go along with, and that kind of mixed media crossover potential is one of the things that gets us super excited. As writers I think it’s especially magical to see our words translated into visual language.
Lastly, a question I like to ask all of the people I get to interview; what would you consider to be the heart of your work, your guiding North Star?
Jaida: This is my favorite question I’ve ever been asked! One, I love to write characters falling in love, because I am a sucker for romance, but specifically queer romance, in all its shades and complexities, sometimes with fae there, always with lots of slow burn sexual tension and awkwardly romantic (or romantically awkward?) moments. That is what I am always all about at the core of whatever story I am telling, the heart-meat I’m digging for. But two, I always find myself returning to non-human characters—magical familiars, platonic soulmates, bonds forged across species and centuries, talismans of personal power. Dani said it above in answer to another question, but collaboration. Partnership. The way the whole world opens up when you find and forge the bonds of family and community, fight for your chosen ones as if the fate of the world depends on it. (Probably because it does.)
Dani: Love stories, always. Whenever Jaida and I sit down to write a story, the very first thing we start with who’s going to fall in love. The story is anchored by this central relationship, and forms the armature for everything to be built on top of it. How do these characters fall in love and what else is happening while they do it? That’s how I like to write a story. (Maybe this has something to do with why our novels are so character-driven, and why we struggle so with plot!) Occasionally Jaida or myself will have a flash of concept like “what if Voltron was a fantasy novel?”, which was one of the seeds that grew into Master of One, but generally it’s about the relationships first, for me. I love love!! I live for coming-of-age stories, and stories about girls realizing their power and fighting back. On a completely different note: talking animals, all day long! Bonus points if the animal was human once and there’s some kind of magical transformation at work. Sexy curses. An ensemble of characters who are a tight-knit family unit. I think it’s amazing that there’s so much LGBTQIA+ content in contemporary YA, but it feels like there’s still room for a ton of growth in the sci-fi/fantasy area of the sky. Jaida said something related to this earlier, but we were both very much formed by the exclusively heteronormative protagonists and characters of the fantasy books we read growing up. I guess what I would consider to be the heart of my work is creating space for characters like myself to exist and be heroes without their sexuality being the central focus of the narrative.
Image 1, 5, 9: Minttu Hynninen
Image 2, 3, 4, 9: Fyodor Pavlov
Image 6: Kelsey of I Do Declare
Image 7: Anka Lavriv