By Steve Dunk
Today we’re pleased to welcome Roseanne A. Brown to the WNDB blog to discuss A Psalm of Storms and Silence, out November 2, 2021.
*Spoilers for A Song of Wraiths and Ruin
Hi Roseanne, thanks so much for talking to We Need Diverse Books!
Thank you for having me!
Now that we’ve reached the end of the road for this story, the one that got everything started for you, looking back, how are you feeling now that the duology is finished?
It’s such a weird feeling of both like relief and pride, and I’m at the stage where I’m still a little bit nervous because as we’re talking, the book is still not officially out yet. There’s still always that moment where the advanced copies are out there and we’re getting early reviews, early reads and things, so we’re starting to get a sense of how the audience reaction is. It’s something we don’t really know until the book comes out.
The readers connected so deeply with the first book; I continually ask myself if it’s a worthy follow up. Is it going to answer every question they wanted answered? So, it’s definitely a mix of all three of those things, but on just the pure writing level, I’m feeling a lot of relief because as a lot of authors will tell you, writing in the pandemic has not been great.
Wraiths was off to copy and in print before the pandemic started, even though it came out during the pandemic, but I had stopped working on it before the pandemic started. But Psalm was done almost entirely during the pandemic and that was just a huge challenge, just trying to get into that creative headspace when it felt like the world was crumbling.
So, getting to the other side of that, it has just been an immense relief, regardless of what happens with the book.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned during this process, not only about the publishing industry, but also about yourself?
I think the most important thing I have had to learn about myself is silencing the outside voices, being able to separate what everyone else wants the book to be, from what I need the book to be.
A big part of the struggle was when I was working on Psalms and Wraiths was coming out. We were seeing the reaction, and it was so amazing seeing readers and librarians and students and everyone connect but suddenly, there’s just all these voices and opinions everywhere. When I wrote the first book, I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t even have a book deal, it was just me, and the page. And now suddenly there were all these people who had all these strong opinions about the series, about where it should go, what these characters meant.
And they were saying nice things, mind you, they weren’t saying bad things that got under my skin or anything. But even nice things I had realized, like pretty deep into the process, were kind of worming into the way I was seeing the book and seeing the writing. So I ended up actually losing sort of the vision I had for the story, and the spark of what the story, and I, need it to be. Because I was sort of letting other people’s expectations Influence it, and it was coming out muddled, it was coming out jumbled. You know that saying “too many cooks in the kitchen”?
I think what the big turning point was for the series was last fall and I had turned in another draft, and my editor and I could tell it just wasn’t working. And so, I sat down and thought, if nobody else in the world was ever going to read this book how would I want to write it? And as terrifying as that was, I decided to write the book like that. And so, I scrapped a whole year’s worth of work on it, and I just completely started over from scratch and that’s the version that’s going to print now.
And it was terrifying at the time, it’s still terrifying now, but I truly believe that was what the book needed, and since then, as I’ve been working on other projects, I’ve definitely gotten a lot better at that, tuning out the external voices. I haven’t had to go nuclear yet like I did with that one, I hope I don’t have to do that again, but I think I’ve gotten better about staying on top of it. I’ve gotten to a place where I’m like it’s okay to hear what everyone else thinks, but I cannot lose sight of what about this story matters to me.”
Erasing history is sort of like a pro sport for white people, they just love it, and they’re really good at it because they’ve gotten a lot of practice at it. You actually start this book by taking us back in time, giving us some history.
Talk about the importance of being able to do that as a Black author with Black characters. And not just allegorically, and I know this is in universe and fiction, but it’s vitally important in real life as well.
Sure. Okay, that is such a big question, so I’m just trying to break it down, I think. I’m from Ghana, and one thing we have in Ghana is the concept of Sankofa, which a lot of people know as its symbol, the bird with the neck with its head twisted back, toward its back right?
And it’s based on a proverb that loosely translates to “You can’t go forward without remembering the past”. And so, there’s this idea that’s always been culturally ingrained in me, this idea that everything which is a part of you, the way you see a world that’s happening, exists because of what came before. This sounds obvious, of course things happen, and so other things happen, like cause and effect. But on a deeper level, it’s just always about being aware of those connections we have with the past and with the understanding of how everything that was, informs the present.
And so how this sort of applies to Psalm is that, as I was writing the book with the first early drafts, I was realizing there was just so much of the story that had actually happened before the book takes place. And it felt like by leaving that out I was not giving the reader a full picture of what was actually going on. And I’ll be completely honest, I’m actually not the biggest fan of flashbacks, and so for the longest time I was figuring out how do I do this without huge flashbacks, without throwing in like ninety info dumps. What I settled on was adding another voice.
The first book only had Malik and Karina, and I won’t spoil who it is, but this time I added a third narrator, and this narrator is sort of regaling scenes from Karina’s past, her childhood specifically. And so, we kind of see some pivotal moments in her life that have led to what is going on in this book and led to the events that have come to define the entire story. I really wanted to tie into the idea that the past, it doesn’t matter if you forget it, it doesn’t matter if you don’t acknowledge it, the past is still there, and the past is still affecting everything that happens even if you don’t understand it.
There’s a line in the first book which is a big theme that runs through it: “The past devours those naive enough to forget it”. It’s this idea that you can ignore the past, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to go away. And so, I just really wanted to tie in that idea to this story, that nothing in our world is ever happening outside of a vacuum. And I think that’s difficult for Black people in particular because we’re so often told we don’t have our own history; we don’t have our own cultures. Whether you’re in the diaspora, whether you’re in mainland Africa, so much of the history has been taken away from us because of racism, because of slavery, because of colonialism, because of imperialism, there’s just so many barriers between you and the past. So actively trying to sift through it, to understand how you got to where you are, it’s very difficult.
I’m an author and it’s my job to do this kind of research, to try and find it, and I still have a hard time finding actual primary sources that haven’t been distorted through a colonial lens about my own culture. And so, I think anytime, as a Black person, you’re able to find a connection to the past, to the ancestors, to a place that helps understand your current situation, I think that’s extremely important and very special. And it’s not always easy, and unfortunately, it’s not always possible because some records and sources have been destroyed so thoroughly, but it doesn’t mean it’s not important to keep trying.
Bodily integrity is the inviolability of the physical self; it emphasizes the importance of autonomy, personal autonomy, self-ownership, self-determination, all these wonderful things that most of us take for granted. This is very much at the center of this story.
Of course, it’s relevant today, not just with Texas, but in the US going back hundreds of years now, especially with the Black communities who haven’t always had the right to choose what happens to their own bodies. Talk about how important that is in the context of not only your story, but again, how important that is as a Black creator, being able to come out on the other side of that.
I think the answer to this question comes in two different ways, and the two big ways are #1, the resurrection of Karina’s sister Hanane, and #2, the fact that at the end of book one Malik tricked the spirit of Idir into entering his mind, and so now they’re sharing his body. A good chunk of this book deals with the consequences of both of these actions thoroughly.
So, with Hanane first, obviously in the first book, the big thing was that Karina was trying to bring her mother back from the dead. Her mother had been assassinated, she’s trying to save her and by the end of the book, she realizes that she needs to move on. But, as much as she misses her mother, she cannot do this, she’s using her death as a crutch to not actually move on, and not actually deal with her grief. She realizes that’s not the way to live her life, so she decides not to go through the resurrection in the end.
However, Karina’s adoptive brother Farid, who has been in love with her sister Hanane his whole life, he actually goes through with the ritual and resurrects Hanane instead. And so, book one ends with her coming back to life. And I think that always fascinated me, when I was planning out the first book, I was thinking about that a lot.
There’s this sort of trope where a character is willing to do anything in the name of love, and how that’s always perceived as a good thing, right? And so, I really wanted to take this character Farid, where everything he does is because he loves Hanane, like every single action, moment, scene, and everything he does in the entire series goes back to this fact. This also makes him very much a villain because it’s a very sinister thing to do. We have this idea where you can justify almost any of your actions with “oh, but I love her”. And he does, he does love Hanane, and he will use that to justify super heinous acts. But where does that leave you?
And so, I really want to explore this idea of resurrection, this idea that like “Oh, he brought her back to life, it’s so romantic, they can be together again”. And you start to realize it’s actually just another form of violation, a form of control to say, “I don’t like that you died, so I’m going to make that not happen anymore.” And you see that Hanane is very distraught to have been brought back to life. Ten years have passed, the world is not in the same state she left it in, and she herself is not exactly as she was when she died. And to have been yanked into this situation without her consent, without her having any say in it, is actually very traumatizing for her. It was very fascinating to explore that, and she also grappled with the fact that she knows Farid did it because he loved her, she knows he loves her, there’s no question about it.
No, it’s more like, what do you do then when someone who loves you has wronged you in such a deep way. And they did something that to them was for your own good, but it has actually been very, very harmful to you. And so, Hanane struggles with that question throughout the entire book, and that that was kind of the center of her arc for me.
Certainly, on one level, yes, she’s a girl who’s been brought back from the dead, she’s trying to find her place in this world. But on another, I’m looking to really explore how you deal with such a giant violation of trust and consent. And it was very important to me that it was done honestly, that it was a conversation about consent, even if it’s not 100% of the sexual nature we’re used to. I think we limit ourselves when we only talk about consent in a certain context, in certain sexual situations. Not to say consent isn’t always 100% mandatory in those situations, it absolutely is. But I feel it limits the understanding that violating another person’s autonomy, violating their boundaries, also exists outside of physically intimate situations. It exists when you’re making decisions for them and about them, without them having any say in it. You are deciding what’s best for them, and that’s the central question Hanane has to deal with.
As for Malik, he’s kind of in a different situation because at the end of book one, he’s the one who tricked the Faceless King into his mind. He did it to protect the city, to protect the people, because the spirit was about to go on a rampage. But unlike Hanane who had this forced on her, Malik willingly chose this for himself.
However, he didn’t fully understand what he was agreeing to when he did it, and so book two is very much him realizing that having a spirit inside you, really sucks. Sorry, but having a spirit inside you is not great. And so, Malik spends a lot of time grappling with this decision.
Number one, you made a choice, you go on to regret that choice, however, that choice is for the greater good. Because as much as he hates having to share his body, not having any privacy, not having himself to himself anymore, he also knows he cannot risk letting Idir go because the spirit can’t be trusted not to just destroy everything again. And so, you see Malik kind of struggle with the idea of like the greater good versus his own personal good. He understands that he has to put his well-being aside for the sake of the greater good.
And I think for me, it was really fascinating to break down the idea of the hero who is always self-sacrificing, is always putting others’ needs first. Because, as much as we love to read about these types of characters, that’s not necessarily healthy or realistic. And there is no one in this world who really benefits from always putting others’ needs before themselves. So, we kind of see Malik hitting that line where you’ve given up too much for the cause, and you are just better off actually putting what you need first, because being selfish is better for you in the long term, even if it might cause problems in the short. So, Malik is struggling with that, he’s struggling with the idea that deep down he wants to be a hero, he wants to be a good person, but what we need of him, what we need him to be, is kind of actively killing him.
Yeah, you really give Malik a hard time in this book, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you hated him!
People say that, and the thing is Malik is way more like me than Karina, so people are always like, “Ok, so you don’t like Malik?” I think it’s because we’re so similar that I give him a harder time, so yeah, he goes through a lot in this one.
If you went by my bookshelf, you’d think the playing field was actually 89/11 in favor of marginalized authors. And while we’re definitely getting some incredible stories from Black authors, especially West African and Afro Caribbean folklore, the last year or two, there’s still a long way to go, isn’t there?
And I’m afraid I know the answer, but have you seen any indication that maybe things are starting to improve or move in the right direction?
You know what, I’m actually going to have a slightly optimistic answer for this, however, I will say it’s more on the grassroots level, and not an industry down change. But I think anyone who’s looking to see a change happen from the big publishing houses, like trickle down, that’s not happening, that’s not what’s going to happen.
However, and speaking as someone who’s been part of this community since 2013, I myself was a teen and had seen how, YA in particular, has shifted and changed. I have never seen such unity among peers, and booksellers, and librarians, the people on the ground getting books to readers. People mobilizing and working hard to make opportunities for marginalized authors, getting their books out there, supporting them.
DVpit, the diverse voices pitch contest, is a big one which started as just a pitching contest on Twitter and has now morphed into a whole organization that does mentorship programs and offers opportunities to marginalized authors. Another is the way readers come together to form a movement, to push their favorite books on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, getting the books they feel deserve more attention, propelling them onto bestseller lists.
I really do feel there has been a shift of people who understand that if they want to support these books, they’re going have to do it themselves. Because there’s no guarantee the big publishing houses are always going give them the support they need. I know for myself, with Wraiths, a big part of its success was people on the ground, in the heart of the pandemic and the height of the George Floyd uprising, people were saying Black authors have these books coming out and we cannot let them be forgotten. It’s people on the ground, spreading this information around, networking, that’s when industry people really start to notice. So yeah, I will say I’ve actually seen the shift on the ground, not so much from the big houses.
As an aside, there’s certainly been these substantial moments, right? Remember when the Blackout women were on Good Morning America, followed by Kwame Mbalia and the Black Boy Joy team a few weeks later. Ayana Gray is going to be on Good Morning America coming up here shortly.
You wouldn’t have seen these things a year, two years ago, so it looks like a bit of a shift, but I’m just so cynical. I’m just can’t help thinking, who’s that in service of, number one, and number two, is this just going to rise and fall like all the other times? Last year, some authors sold more books in June than they did their debut months, and then that ceded too. We know how these things go, we’ve seen this pattern before, haven’t we? I’m trying to be optimistic about it.
But I love your last answer about change happening on the ground level because my next question is related to that. You’ve been both a mentee and mentor on Pitch Wars, and I love this idea of authors who have found success in these types of avenues, something that we would not have been able to do 20 years ago. This is a pure social media/internet age thing and it’s great, and I love it, so talk about this concept of paying it forward, now that you’re on the other side of it.
For me, I’m 100% where I am because established people in the industry saw something in me that was worth nurturing, worth helping. When I submitted Wraiths to Pitch Wars, I didn’t even know what a query letter was, I had never queried, I had never tried to publish a book. All I knew was I had this manuscript and I wanted to make it better and I didn’t know how. And so, I saw this opportunity to reach out and maybe get some guidance.
I didn’t know anything at the time, I had a little bit of writing background from school, but no actual publishing as a business knowledge or background. My mentor Laura Pohl, she saw a spark and took a chance on it, and she was like, “You know what? You have a great idea here.” And she asked for a lot of work from me, she had me rewrite the entire book in two months. So, it’s not like she didn’t ask for a lot of work, but she saw a spark there that seemed to be worth all the work that needed doing.
And not just people like her, but people who critiqued my query letter when I was finally ready to query, and people who helped with my synopsis. People who took the time, to absolutely no benefit to themselves, no guarantee they were ever going to see anything come from it, but they took the time to help me. I would not be here without them and so I’m just so aware of what it’s like to be on the other side. You just have no idea, all you know is that you want this thing so bad, you want to be a part of this industry and you know you have good ideas.
But it’s not even about getting your foot in the door because you don’t even know where the door is! And so, the importance of having people who can guide you to the door cannot be understated. And they’re not going do the work for you, but they’re going to give you the tools, show you how they did it. That is something I always want to pass on to the next group of writers coming up because I know what it’s like, and I know how even a single Zoom call, or a single email can really change the entire trajectory of your career.
You’re jumping right into another series with Serwa Boateng’s Guide to Vampire Hunting. I know it’s early, but is there anything you can tell us about that series?
I’m literally turning in a draft of it to my editor today, so I’m glad you asked about that.
Serwa Boateng’s Guide to Vampire Hunting comes out next fall, Rick Riordan presents. Unlike Wraiths, this one is actually a contemporary fantasy, so it takes place in Maryland where I grew up, and it follows a young girl who’s been raised to fight a kind of vampire from Ghana that turns into a firefly instead of a bat, and they can take over people’s minds and possess them to do bad things.
She’s been raised her whole life to fight them, but her parents decide it’s too dangerous, so they decide to send her to a normal school, like a normal kid. So, no more fighting vampires, she has to learn to try and survive in normal school, which she’s never done before and it’s actually more difficult than fighting vampires, so it’s definitely been a lot of fun.
This is my first middle grade ever and it has just been a fun exercise, making the real world feel magical because when you’re dealing with a world you completely made up like Wraith’s, and you want to make things feel more magical it was very easy, it’s just baked into that world. But this our world, and how do you actually make middle school feel magical? Because middle school stinks, it’s not great. So, that has been fun challenge.
And it’s also my first group book because Serwa has this group of friends who she sort of falls in with, and while Wraith had a big cast, it was very much the Malik and Karina story. So other side characters had small moments, but they were very much kind of on their own intentionally, like the whole story was them learning to kind of figure things out on their own. But Serwa has the opposite problem, she needs to learn to work as a group, but she’s always sort of thought of just herself or her family, she’s never actually been a part of a community, so her big thing is learning to be a part of that community. And so, because of that, this group of kids, who are all from different backgrounds, like different classes, not school classes, like socioeconomic classes, and they all have different skills to bring to the table and she has to kind of learn to meld all of that, and work with all of them.
It has definitely been a bit of a learning curve, going from like a very structured narrative, focused on two people, to a five-person group and the dynamics of that, and how you juggle so many conflicting characters and needs. I personally think, well, the current draft is definitely a lot better than the first draft, thank goodness, but I definitely think it has gotten to a place where I’m proud of it. I can’t necessarily say if it’s any good, but I’m proud of where it is.
That sounds amazing and I love middle grade. I’ve been talking a lot of middle grade lately, the last few guests have been middle grade books and I just love the genre because there’s little to no fluff, it’s just exposition and character work, it’s awesome.
So your breakthrough was a series, and your next release is a series, but which do you prefer reading? Series, or standalone?
I love reading series because I really love getting to know a character, getting to see them change and grow, and I always feel so sad when a series ends. But having said that, I’ve been reading more standalones lately, because I’ve been reading lots of thrillers, and most thrillers do tend to be standalone so.
For fans of the A Song of Wraiths and Ruin series, what other books, would you recommend?
Oh, definitely The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna, which she describes as The Handmaid’s Tale meets the Black Panther Storm elegy. It is incredible and amazing, and everyone should go read those books because Namina is amazing.
And also, the Tiger at Midnight trilogy by Swati Teerdhala. It’s inspired by South Asian folklore and is about a soldier who’s trying to hunt down the rebel who killed his general, and it gives me strong Legend vibes. Legend is one of my favorite books ever, so I don’t say that lightly, but Tiger at Midnight gives me very strong Legend/fantasy vibes.
So yeah, The Tiger at Midnight and The Gilded Ones, those are the two.
Roseanne “Rosie” A. Brown was born in Kumasi, Ghana and immigrated to the wild jungles of central Maryland as a child. Writing was her first love, and she knew from a young age that she wanted to use the power of writing—creative and otherwise—to connect the different cultures she called home. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor’s in Journalism and was also a teaching assistant for the school’s Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House program. Her journalistic work has been featured by Voice of America among other outlets. On the publishing side of things, she has worked as an editorial intern at Entangled Publishing. Rosie was a 2017 Pitch Wars mentee and 2018 Pitch Wars mentor. Rosie currently lives outside Washington D.C., where in her free time she can usually be found wandering the woods, making memes, or thinking about Star Wars.
Steve Dunk was born on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and now lives near a lake just outside of Toronto, spending his days obsessing over most things in geek culture, but mostly just trying to drink coffee and read in peace. He’s been blogging for various sites for as long as he can remember, focusing on the big three, movies, books, and music. His reading tastes stick pretty close to Young Adult but occasionally ventures outside enjoying middle grade, new adult, and adult as well. Fantasy, sci-fi, speculative, romance, contemporary…he loves it all. He reviews books and interviews authors on his podcast, Everything is Canon, over at Cinelinx.com with a focus on BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ authors and allyship. He doesn’t like sports, has lots of Star Wars books, and has two dogs. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.