In Conversation with Elizabeth Priest

Released through Luna Press Publishing in November 2018, Concrete Faery is the opening installment of the Troutespond Series, Elizabeth Priest’s debut young adult fantasy saga.

Elizabeth received a BA in History, Literature & Creative Writing from the University of Chichester. She has been writing stories since before she could hold a pen herself, and still writes about fairies and fairy tales to this day. Currently, she lives in the south east of England by the sea, where she spends her time writing and sleeping. The Troutespond Series crystallized in her more adventurous University days and fills a void for girls adventuring in fairyland that Lizzy always wanted to read.

Nicole Flippo, our assistant blog editor, connected with Priest to delve further into fairies, female friendships, queer representation, publication, persevering through long-term projects, and her debut novel.

This interview has been edited for time and clarity.

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Nicole Flippo: Your new book, Concrete Faery, which is the first installment of the Troutespond Series, was released on November 6. Can you tell us a little about the book, and what inspired you to write it?

Elizabeth Priest: On the surface, it’s just like an adventure with fairies and teenagers that's very—I can't find any ways to describe it—it's very silly. And it didn't really feel like it had a structure—it does, and yet in my brain, it's very hard to pin that down, because I wrote it. So, I know other people probably see more in it than I do in a weird way. Basically, the first thing that kind of came together with this was, I had a dream where one of the main characters, Tanya, disappeared. And I already knew her from kids games I used to play with my neighbor. There was this creepy shed next door. And on the door, there was carved into it, “I love Tanya," in big spidery writing. And I always thought, [we should] come up with a horrible ghost story for that. And we were really small kids, but every time we took to this character Tanya, something happened to her. And so when I had this dream, and it was a bunch of other girls running around looking, I knew they were looking for Tanya. And the Piper was there and fully formed. And I was just like, [the Piper] is setting them up, he's playing a joke on them, he's making them look for this character more for their own personal growth than anything.

When I started writing, I didn't have a setting or anything. I just knew, there [were] a bunch of characters, they're gonna be given the supernatural runaround. And it was not like pulling a lot of inspirations people seem to get from other stories they love which are very similar to what they want to write. But I was pulling from teenage novels like Ally's World by Karen McCombie or Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison. You know, that kind of stuff where it's teenage girls, their lives, they're in a world where they're stressing about school and boys and stuff. And I was like, I'm gonna write that style, first person confessional, anxious teenager. But it's fairies. And so it's very—I'm not saying I invented a genre at all. But it's more like it naturally fell out of that rather than emulating some sort of fairytale structure that was already in place.

NF: Concrete Faery is definitely playing around with a lot of YA genre-bending lines. Fantasy settings have long provided platforms for examining the anxieties of adolescence. How has Concrete Faery upheld and stood apart from what traditional speculative YA looks like to you?

EP: I'll be honest, I don't read that much of the modern boom of YA stuff, because a lot of it started after I was already—I mean, I was writing this when I was eighteen. And stuff like Twilight was still quite new, and I wrote this in 2008, the first draft. So there's a whole lot of stuff, like The Hunger Games, that comes after this in popular consciousness. I've only read a few of these things. It was a lot of my anxieties in a way, so I didn't have any kind of greater purpose to it. But there's a lot of growing-up anxiety. Because I was eighteen, I had just left home, gone to university. I was writing this from my university room my first year away from home. And going home actually was one of the inspirations. Because they changed the street lights while I was away! I came back and everything was different outside my bedroom window. And that was the first scene of the book. Ally's just like, "Oh, the window, oh, the street lights have changed outside my window." But that was me.

Each book in the series, for a while, is a lot of growing up. I wouldn't say they're regular conflicts, but I think I kind of metaphorically approach them like, you know, the Green Man's the ultimate boyfriend drama that you can inflict on someone. I keep saying I don't have a main romance, but the whole thing is structured around Ally and the Piper, even though that's not a huge, epic romance. I never want that to be the focus of it. It is a lot more like, sort of, exam stress. More than boyfriend drama. It's something which I feel relates more to what I would've been stressed about at the time.

NF: You measure how Ally and her friends are coping with emerging adulthood through their competency, or lack thereof, when interacting with the world of the fairies. Can you touch a little bit more on that particular metaphorical choice?  

EP: It really is like, the more adult and competent they are in the real world, the more they can handle fairies. But also, Ally's very much me. She babbles, she's panicky all the time — and everybody says she's me. I'm not even hiding it. Except she's a lot taller than me. It's like, she finds a sort of secret strength in herself learning that her own anxieties, her babbling, can help her deal with the fairies. She's going to be a bit more competent as she moves on because she's growing up. Finding out that she can deal with these things. But Alana— [who would be] the main character, in my head, if this were a series that was told straight—she's the new girl, she's got magic powers, she's got a secret mentor. You know, she's got a big dark backstory, she's very adult, much more grown up. I've actually thought a long time that I would be able to write every single one of the books from her point of view, but no other character would be able to do that. But I don't, because I think everybody's important.

NF: That is actually one of my personal favorite things about the first book and my understanding of how you're planning to structure the other novels.

EP: With the Animorphs style.

NF: Yeah, absolutely. Even though Alana would typically be the character that the reader would follow into the world, you chose to open with the perspective of Ally, who’s described as the “chronic sidekick.”  

EP: Yeah (laughs).

NF: I think it is a lot of fun, and is something you really don't see a lot.

EP: Thanks.

NF: Leading into the next question, Concrete Faery is refreshingly female-centric. What was your thought process behind giving the primary interpersonal narrative weight to a group of young female friends?

EP: Honestly, I went to an all-girls school, and in a way, it just seemed completely and utterly natural. Like even with friends I made online, it's just easier to talk to women. My entire social circle was girls. I've got a twin brother, and I've had a few friends who are guys. But overall, I just understand being around women better. It's easier to relate [to] for me. And it's something the world's lacking. It didn't seem at all strange to me that a group of friends would be three to four girls. And that it would be all their problems. And that they were the main characters. I don't need to introduce a male main character to make it more relatable. Because you can read stories where there's four male main characters, and you can get on with it fine, you're asked to relate to them. Why can't people do that with four female characters? The whole thing with 'girls are bitchy' or 'girls are really sweet', you know, you can have every dynamic going into it. You've got a very controlling friend. You've got a very vague friend, who doesn't seem to understand interpersonal relationships at all. You've got needy ones. You've got ones who are latching on for the first time as the new girl, and how everybody reacts to that. There's no one way that a female character relates. But when you have the token female character, you don't get to explore every single one of those ways. I survived an all-girls school with a lot of interpersonal dynamics (laughs).

NF: I love that. Thank you for giving that so much emphasis. I know that you've mentioned in the past that Ally is asexual, and that over the course of the series, the majority of the main cast will be confirmed as somewhere on the LGBT spectrum. This kind of casual and widespread queer representation is incredibly rare. What motivated you to engage with it in the way that you have?

EP: Again, honestly, just my natural life. Writing as an eighteen-year-old, I was quite out of the bubble of the idea that this was needed. It was more just what I wanted to see. I grew up on the Internet writing with the writing forum Fiction Post, which is now long defunct. But a lot of the writers there were queer. I read a lot of stories with a lot of diversity. And it was 2008. I didn't know anything yet. I had barely started my literature degree. And I don't just—they wouldn't all be straight, because it seemed improbable. And that's what I wanted to read (laughs). Obviously, it's now ten years later, and I understand things a lot better. I didn't know anything about asexual discourse at the time, and I just wrote Ally from my experience. Later on in the series, she gets like a real talking to from somebody who knows all the discourse words, and knows how to tell somebody, like, "You don't know this, but I understand, and I'm just gonna give you these books on it, now read up on it."

It's not a normal romance narrative, because she's not wildly romantic herself. She's not interested in pursuing boys. But she still feels crushes and stuff. So, it's still a part of her story. Just the kind of low-key, what you would read, what you would want to read if you're not averse to it, but it's not the most important thing to you ever. 

NF: You've been working on the Troutespond Series for over ten years. Do you have any advice for other writers who might be struggling to persevere with a long-term project?

EP: For me it was coming off the back of all my teenage writing with that writing forum. I had a lot of support. I think it was very good to share writing, and also to read and critique other people’s writing, because you learn so much. If it weren’t for certain people on that writing forum, inspirations for characters wouldn't be in the story. Then I went and did my creative writing degree, or half [creative writing] degree, half-history [degree]. Which I think also is important. You need to balance the writing. You can't just get into that creative writing aspect. You need to do sociology, biology. Something to fill out the gaps in your knowledge of the world. I've written loads of other stuff in the same time, and done a whole other degree, and I've had like chronic tonsillitis, I damaged my wrist, I've had fibromyalgia. So much stuff happens to me, but there's something [there] when I go back to it.

And there's so many different books in the series. There's a story I want to tell, and I think it's maybe quite interesting how it ended up being so long, and how it became a big project. Events at the end of the eighth book is what I originally planned to be the end of Concrete Faery, the first book. And I was like, I can't tell this right now, it's too soon. So I pushed it back and thought, this'll be the end of the fourth book. I'll just tell one from each point of view. And then that literally doubled. It's like pacing yourself. It's figuring out what you want to do, not rushing it, and trusting yourself to be able to go back and finish it every time you sit down to write. You think, I have a goal. One day I'll get there. And you just add to it. And you don't quit when it feels like you're not there yet. I've been writing since I was tiny. So I've got a lot of perseverance when a lot of people don't. I know it's very hard to explain how you can just push on each day and come back to it. I think it's for any project really. I just started knitting and it was like, I don't know what I'm doing. So, I started watching videos, and here's how you do the basic stitches. You just pick up things, bit by bit, and you don't quit when it doesn't work the first time. And I don't know. Maybe it’s a good side of my personality. A little of the anxiety.

NF: Can you tell us a little about your journey to publication? Why did you choose Luna Press Publishing? And what was that experience like for you?

EP: Oh, it’s been really fun. Long before they were actually Luna Press, Francesca Barbini, who joint runs the press, was going to science fiction conventions for writers, like Eastercon. And I went there, tagging along. It was like 2009 or 2010—I had barely just started. She was there, and she had just self-published her first couple of books in her series. She was just sitting there at a table flogging them, and I came over and chatted with her. Because she was doing young adult, and I'd just started writing young adult. We talked about an hour just standing at her table, and I bought all her books. She remembered me a few years later when I got an agent. I think I actually saw her at another convention. She was obviously doing much better. She'd established a press, and it was like, look, we're moving up in the world. And I was like, “Wow, that's great.” And she was like, “Hey, send me your stories sometime!” So, I went back, and I was like, “So, I've got an agent, and we haven't had any luck yet sending out to bigger [publishers]. They don't really want untested young adult, especially like really weird, all-female, not standard stuff.” And Francesca was like, “Okay, send it over to us.” So, it was a lot about making friendships. But I think that’s important. It's not like nepotism. But at the same time, it's like, you go there in person, you chat, you're friendly. It works out long-term.

NF: No, of course. There's so much to be said for just making connections, networking.   

EP: Yeah, there's a lot of stuff like that. Like book fairs, or you can go to book signings, just find out where the authors are. Other people one rung above you on the ladder. And just sort of chat them up. "How did you do it?" And maybe you'll make some friends who can help you.

NF: The second and third installments of the Troutespond Series, The Changeling's Choice and Midsummer Dance respectively, will both release in 2019. Is there anything you can tease for us leading up to their publication at this point?

EP: Ooh. Well, The Changeling's Choice is from Alana's point of view, so it's much more angsty. I would say each one's very different personality-wise. I don't want them to read like they're quite the same. So, it’s definitely much darker. And then the third one's Teb's point of view. And by that point it's a really wild ride. A full quarter of the book is a, not a car chase scene, but it's a car chase scene (laughs). A whole quarter of the book. I went a bit wild with that one. Just, really enjoying full-blown fairy madness. It's brilliant. I mean, I personally found it very fun to write, and I hope other people enjoy how it just devolves into chaos at the end (laughs).

NF: Fantastic. I love that. Is there anything else you would like to let our readers know?

EP: I guess just tell everybody to stick with it. You keep going, and eventually things happen, and if you quit, then you'll never know (laughs). Sounds very trite, but it worked.

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Learn more about Elizabeth Priest and her work here, or follow her on Twitter.

Learn more about Nicole Flippo here.