I’m always interested to hear about bookseller-writers, so I was curious to read Miriam Forster’s debut novel, City of a Thousand Dolls, and happy to get to ask her some questions. Forster worked at Rediscovered Books in Boise, Idaho until recently, when she moved to Portland, Oregon. She maintains a delightful blog at msforster.blogspot.com.
City of a Thousand Dolls, just published in February, is a young adult fantasy that’s also a murder mystery, set in a land called the Empire, which is sealed off from the rest of the world by a magic barrier. Within the Empire is a walled city where unwanted girls are raised and trained in arts that include healing, love and beauty. Nisha, the book’s main character, is an orphan and a servant within the City. When girls are mysteriously murdered, Nisha tries to find the killer, while her own personal mysteries also trouble her. Nisha’s best friends are a tribe of intelligent cats with whom she communicates telepathically.
Forster and I relied on good old-fashioned email for our interview, and she answered my questions with wonderful candor and humor.
AM: I know from reading your excellent blog that City of a Thousand Dolls isn’t the first novel you’ve written. I think this is the case for so many debut authors. Is this at all a surreal feeling, hearing “City” referred to as your “first novel”?
MF: Oh my gosh, yes! Very surreal. It’s more disconcerting when people ask me “Is this your first book?” I always say “Yes! And no. Wait, what do you mean?” and then flail a lot.
City of a Thousand Dolls is actually my second book. The first novel I wrote was one that I started in high school and while its always got a place in my heart, I’ve got no plans to try and sell it at this time. I like the term “debut novel” much better than “first novel.” There’s less confusion.
AM: Aspiring writers always hear we’ll get lots of rejections and that we shouldn’t let them stop us, but it’s not as common to hear someone talk honestly about discouragement as you do on your blog. Will you talk about how you got past the disappointment of repeated rejections?
MF: Ah, query hell. That was not a fun time in my life. The biggest thing that helped was that I kept writing. I wrote four books in between rounds of revising and querying City of a Thousand Dolls.
I think hope is important when you’re a writer. If you’ve only got one book, the idea of writing another is intensely daunting. Combine that with repeated rejections and the whole thing can become a closed circle of discouragement and despair, because this is all you have.
But after finishing two or three books, you start to relax a little, at least I did. It doesn’t make it hurt any less, but helps keep you from falling into despair. You also get a little less attached to the books themselves which helps the rejections feel less personal, and you become a better writer which improves your chances.
It’s been over six years since I started writing City of a Thousand Dolls. Sometimes I sit and look at my little pile of author copies on the shelf and think. “I did that. I made that thing.” It’s very gratifying.
AM: “City” isn’t like any other fantasy I’ve ever read. Since I have a big imagination, I don’t usually find myself wondering where authors got their material. But as I read your book, I found myself wondering, “Where did she get all this?” Do you have any answers for me?
MF: Well, the short answer is “everywhere.” Writing a book is a bit like a scavenger hunt through the recesses of your own mind. And I read a LOT, so I have a very strange imagination.
Really though it was a variety of things. A book on the history of geishas, the idea of an isolated city in one of Terry Brooks’ books, the anthropology class I took a few years ago, my husband’s visit to an orphanage in India. When I decided to make this a South Asian-based fantasy I did a ton of research, everything from food to clothing to animals.
AM: Nisha isn’t a typical heroine. She’s a servant; she’s not particularly spunky or beautiful; and she doesn’t have stand-out special powers (other than her ability to talk to the cats). I like that she’s a fairly ordinary girl, because I think it makes her a better role model.
MF: I originally envisioned Nisha as someone who was very out of place. Her role in the world is really undefined, which is unusual for her culture, and unusual for the City itself. As I started to get to know her better and see what kind of effect growing up like that had on her, I realized I didn’t want her to be a shiny, special chosen one. I wanted her to make mistakes and get tongue-tied and feel helpless, because those things are a huge part of being human. I wanted her to find power in her situation without being a sword-toting revolutionary, because most of us aren’t. I didn’t want her to win because she was stronger or smarter or more “chosen” than everyone else. I wanted her to win because she cared about people and refused to give up.
AM: I’m impressed by how mixed many of the characters are–how Matron can be both compassionate and ruthless, for example. I found myself wanting to hear more about Prince Sudev, who intrigued me with his mix of cruelty, justice and mercy. Did you set out to make characters a mix of good and bad qualities, or did they simply reveal themselves to you this way?
MF: I think it’s a reflection of how I view people.
I don’t think humans are a mix of good and evil in the way that house salads are a mix of lettuce and carrots and tomatoes. Rather, I think every person is a puree. Wants and fears and affection and hate and generosity and ignorance all blended together with our pasts, and the people we love, and all the things we wish we were, but aren’t. And we have to get up every day and choose what to do with the selves that we have. And sometimes we make bad choices, and sometimes we make good ones. We try and fail, try and succeed, and some days we don’t try at all, we just sit around in our pajamas and watch Netflix.
In other words, yes I did it on purpose. I want my characters to be as real as I can make them, because real people are so amazing.
AM: You’ve been a bookseller. How do you feel about handselling your own book?
MF: I got a little taste of this over the summer, when I was working at the Rediscovered Bookshop. My boss and my coworkers made me talk about my book to people, for which I’m profoundly grateful. But they had to make me because I felt very awkward doing it.
It’s much easier to talk about other people’s books than your own. And I never knew how to start the conversation. “Hey . . . uh . . . I see you like YA fantasy. I have a YA fantasy coming out soon, you should check it out.” *eyebrow waggle*
It’s like a bad pickup line.
Fortunately for me, my coworkers would see me talking to someone about YA fantasy and they would come by and say: “Did you tell them about your book?” So then I would tell them about my book. It was still awkward because I’m an awkward person. But it was better than trying to start the conversation on my own.
(I got to go back and have my release party at the Rediscovered. It was awesome, and they did a wonderful job.)
AM: If you were to create a display table around “City” (or if you already have), what other books would you put on the table with it?
MF: I would put it with Ellen Oh’s debut Prophecy, a Korean-inspired high fantasy, and Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix, which is one of my favorite books ever. I’d also add Grace Lin’s amazing middle grade books, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky, and maybe some Laurence Yep, though I don’t know much about his books. I hear they’re really good though.
AM: What can we look forward to next from the creative mind of Miriam Forster?
MF: Companion book! Sometime in 2014. It will definitely not be a sequel, but there will be some crossover characters, and some things will be explained, both about the world and the events of the first book.
Amanda MacNaughton is a front-line bookseller and the events manager at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond and a regular NWBL contributor. In addition to her monthly Bookselling in the Desert column, MacNaughton has interviewed Kaya McLaren, Ceiridwen Terrill, Jane Kirkpatrick, Anjali Banerjee, Marcus J. Borg and Brian Doyle.