Interview with Jonathan Pembroke

Jonathan Pembroke

Fantasy/Sci-Fi Focus: Hey Jonathan, how’s it going? How has this last year of insanity been treating you?

JP: It’s been crazy, for sure. My wife and I live in a rural area outside a small town, so we haven’t been as affected as many folks. We were kind of socially-distant before it was cool. Still, with everyone staying at home more, it’s given me a lot of time to write and I can’t complain about that.

FSF: I feel the same way in that I’ve always worked from home so I’ve actually been more productive. It’s been nice having my wife and kids around more. There’s a comfort in knowing they are close by. I do feel for the horrible effect it’s had on so many people though.

JP: Yeah, it is certainly a challenge for everyone. I know some folks that have been hit hard and I keep hoping for the best for everyone … and I keep hoping that as vaccines distribution continues, that things will ultimately calm down.

FSF: Absolutely. Let’s shift gears and talk about writing. When did you know you wanted to be an author, and describe the journey that led to your first published novel.

JP: I’ve been a closet writer since I was a kid. I’m an 80s kid, and I think I was about eight when Dungeons and Dragons started gaining popularity. Unfortunately, I spent a lot of years living in places where there weren’t many kids my age. So what does an introverted kid who loved fantasies and dragons do when he’s not in school? He writes, draws, creates. I think those formative years instilled the love in me. Around the same time, my dad took me to see the movie Dragonslayer. Somewhat hokey but it was enough, I went full-bore fantasy fan after that.

I wrote off and on as I was growing up but I didn’t start getting serious until about fifteen years ago, and that was all short stories.

Around 2012, I started developing an idea about mystical shrines that gave people gifts. That eventually grew into my first novel, Pilgrimage to Skara. I finished it in 2014 and self-published in in 2016.

FSF: Now you’ve since written a trilogy, called The Holly Sisters. Tell our readers about the series and why they should be bingeing it right now!

JP: The short version: faery gangsters! The Holly Sisters is about two faerys of the Holly Clan, Sydney and her big sister Marla. Marla ran way from Sylvan Valley (the faery homeland) where she ended up in Woodhollow, running a street gang of faeries, who deal drugs, loanshark, and tussle with other gangs for control of Woodhollow’s underworld. Years later, Sydney (the POV protagonist) joins her sister.

At its heart, Holly Sisters has two themes. One, is Sydney trying to find herself. All faeries in a clan share the same wing colors and she was born with different wings, which made her feel like an outcast. She’s got some bitterness and feelings of isolation, so it’s about her finding her way.

At the same time, it’s also about the relationship between the sisters. I don’t think we see enough healthy sister relationships in fantasy and I wanted to show that Sydney and Marla go from being estranged to accepting to loving each other over the course of the series.

FSF: Sounds amazing . Now you’ve self published your work up to this pint. What has been the biggest joy to you in that process? What have been your biggest challenges or obstacles?

JP: Oh, man. The biggest joys are almost too many to count. One, there’s accomplishment. It’s amazing to do this on your own. Two, the freedom. No deadlines, no publisher breathing down your neck. I was able to find a cover artist who did exactly what I wanted. Three, the self-published community is fantastic. I’ve met so many awesome people.

Obstacles? The only big one: getting my work in front of people. The marketing and publicity is a tall mountain to climb for a self-pubb’d author and there’s no one to help. You have to be aggressive and take some chances. It’s more work that I ever expected.

Having said that, even if I ever landed a traditional publishing deal, I wouldn’t stop self-publishing. I’m simply enjoying myself too much.

FSF: How important is reader interaction to you as a self published author? How do you most like to network with your readers?

JP: Utterly invaluable. I try to be accessible and open with anyone who shows interest in my writing–or really, in fantasy in general. I’m a heavy reader and I like talking about other books too. I try to maintain a positive attitude about my writing and I think it shows; some readers who didn’t care for my first book were willing to give another one a chance because I didn’t throw a fit over a bad review. Positivity and optimism really do help.

I mostly network through social media. I’m in a bunch of FB fantasy groups, though I read more than I post. Ditto Redditt Fantasy, and Goodreads. I’ve met a lot of people through all these avenues. I was on Twitter briefly but had a bad experience and my interaction there was minimal, so I’m not now. I keep hearing Instagram but I know bupkis about it. I have also gone to some craft / book fairs to set up my books for sale and interact with people, though with Covid those opportunities are more limited. Again, no matter what’s said, I just keep smiling.

FSF: How much of yourself and people in your personal life make it into your characters? I know it’s common for authors to draw from those sources.

JP: A lot of them are sarcastic when they’re under stress and I tend to be the same. I’m sure some unconscious influence creeps in but I can only think of one instance where I intentionally drew from real-life. In the Holly Sisters, one of the supporting characters, Vivian (one of the gang members) is a perpetually-happy bubbly blonde, who has a tendency to talk fast, wave her hands, and repeat certain catch phrases. In the end, Vivian ends of being one of the biggest ass-kickers of the series. She’s so similar in personality to my wife Lisa that anyone who knows us would pick up on it right away.

FSF: So when you write, do you ever write with a specific audience or market in mind, or do you basically write for yourself and your own enjoyment and hope that people will come along for the ride and share your vision?

JP: Definitely the second one. I’ve tried to do he first and it always feels plastic to me. So I write the stories I want, and I’ve accepted that not everyone wants the same kind of stories I do. As a reader, I’ve bounced hard off a lot of popular fantasy, so I get my tastes are different. I write the kind of tales I like to read: adventure tales, with some character development, and lots of banter.

On that note about specific audiences, I will point out that all my books are written for adults. Even though they are about faeries, elves, leprechauns, etc., the characters drink, swear, bash each other in the heads, and sleep around. This has created a few awkward moments when an eleven-year old see faeries on the covers and gets interested and I have to explain things to Mom or Dad. Never a dull moment!

FSF: They say every poet is a thief, and naturally I’d apply that to authors too. We all have our influences that tend to find their way into our work, as original as we’d like it to be. Who are some of your biggest influences on your art. Draw not only from books and authors but also film, television, music etc.

JP: In a general sense, Stephen King and Michael Moorcock were huge early influences–King for his creativity and sheer productivity, and Moorcock for the memorable characters and depth of his world-building. I read a lot of comics growing up and I get the impression that many comic writers in the 70s and 80s were frustrated novelists, since comics are probably the foundation of my vocabulary. In specific, I know the nucleus of The Holly Sisters came from me watching the movie Gangs of New York. I started imagining that, rather than Civil-War-era gangs of immigrants and natives fighting for control of the streets, it was mystical races. I wrote a 4K-word short story about that, which was ultimately the foundation for Rumble in Woodhollow, the first book in the series.

FSF: So what’s next that readers can look forward to from you in the next year?

JP: I had never planned to write a sequel to Pilgrimage to Skara. Its reviews haven’t been great. But it has a handful of fans and there is still some story there, so I am going to tell that tale and close the loop. I would like to have that out by the end of the year.

I also have a (revised) draft of the first book in a new series done and looking for some beta readers. Tentative title is The Sentinel, about a middle-aged woman who’s part of a specialized military force who helps protect her world from an encroaching darkness that has taken over much the land. Borderline flintlock fantasy, though with a blend of magic and technology. This will probably be a four-book series, though none of those will be out before 2022 at the earliest.

And if anyone reads The Holly Sisters and thinks the story should go on, fear not–it is! I’m working out plots for the next series featuring the same characters … the ones that survive, anyway.

FSF: Sounds awesome. Lots to look forward to. Now I was wondering if you could recommend some indie fantasy or science fiction that you’ve read over the last couple of years to our audience.

JP: Sure, and I’ll steer away from the stock answers for indy fantasy. Reign and Ruin, by JD Evans is a political-fantasy set in a Syrian-Lebanese-influenced world, with good characters and an interesting magic system. There is a romantic subplot and a bit of steaminess but the whole thing is well-written. I think it’s a planned six-book series and three are out now.

Also, I’d recommend Lost Dogs, by Nils Odlund. The series concerns an aging pit-fighter in an MMA-style lycnathrope league, and a young woman who’s struggling to control her own inner beast. It’s all set in a modern but secondary world with an underlying hint of decay. Brooding and introspective, with some outbursts of intense action. Ten books in the series, with the last just released; all ten are short can be devoured in a night or two.

FSF: Awesome. More for the already mountainous TBR pile. Now I like to end all my interviews with this question. What one piece of advice can you offer to new and aspiring authors?

JP: Don’t quit. If you’re loving what you’re doing and you get joy out of it, don’t give up. You’ll want to at time. You’ll get frustrated. You’ll get discouraged. Stick with it. You remember that person who gave up too early? Neither does anyone else.

FSF: Well, thanks for taking the time. It was cool talking to you and best of luck with your year!

JP: Thanks, Michael. Best to you and yours, and all the F/SF Focus crowd. Cheers!

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