Today I’d like to introduce SM Henley, an urban fantasy writer who rapid-fire published their first three novels, the Written by Birds trilogy, earlier this year. She’s been kind enough to share the inspiration and process behind her first novel, Scratching in the Dirt, with us today! I hope you’ll enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.
A father in Hell, a dead lover, and a demon gangster on her tail. Today is the best day of Tazia’s life.
Demons are taking savage control of the disillusioned and down-at-heel. Half-vampire, Tazia, wants no part in it. She’s embracing her first taste of freedom in one hundred and fifty years. But liberty doesn’t come easily. When her celebrations are interrupted by a psychopathic angel, she is forced into a distasteful alliance to save the demon who was once her jailer.
Assisted by her best friend, a sex-addicted technomancer called Billy, she struggles to free herself from the angel’s evil plan. No easy task, when faced with resistance from a demonic terrorist, and pursued by her ex-lover—a human mercenary now out for her blood. If she fails, will Tazia ever regain her freedom or will she be forced back into a life of tortuous incarceration?
Scratching in the Dirt is the first in the Written by Birds trilogy, and is an adult urban fantasy novel set on the streets of modern-day Turin, London, and Detroit. It treads lightly in the darkness, with not a small amount of blood and gritty humor. Just ask the birds.
Can you tell us a bit about your book, Scratching in the Dirt?
Scratching is an urban fantasy adventure. It’s pretty dark, realistic, and gritty. Certainly not “pretty” paranormal. It’s set in a dystopian version of today where demons are rising on a city by city basis – and yet, it also has a fair smattering of humorous moments (I think they’re funny, anyway!) The book focuses on the female MC, half-demon Tazia, and her fight for freedom from her past, and as such would probably be classified as a coming-of-age or quest type plot—though it is not a YA. Despite a trio of admirers (who frequently want to kill her), neither is it a romance. It is more about the way she tackles the obstacles life keeps throwing at her, while still maintaining her bid for freedom, when it would be so much easier to run away or sit in the corner and give up. Despite her half-demon status she is a very real, sympathetic character, who you may feel quite conflicted about in book 1, but hopefully by book 3, you’ll be cheering her along.
Jegudiel is the primary antagonist, a renegade angel who seems to hold all the cards. You actually rarely see her in the book, but her influence is felt everywhere. I wanted to do a demon v. angel story set within a traditional Christian mythology but get back to Old Testament blood and guts. I don’t like fluffy angels, or all-bad demons, so instead introduced some characters which turn those concepts on their head—a psycho angel and a “good” demon. That good/bad dichotomy has always intrigued me. It’s something I think Joss Wheden does particularly well in Buffy and Angel, as well as in Gothic novels like Wuthering Heights—the Cathy/Heathcliff interplay is divine! The relationship between Hux and Tazia in the trilogy, owes a lot to Emily Bronte lol.
What part of the story came to you first?
The first thing that came to me was the setting. The first scenes of Scratching are set in Turin, Italy. As soon as I saw a documentary about that place, story ideas began to take shape. Turin is known as “Satan’s City” and is full of dark history. That’s the sort of place that calls to me big time! The whole storyline around the Abbot of Savoy (Tazia’s father) is based on a mixture of two things: a real 13th century Franciscan monk who fled England to France after murdering his superior, and the mythos around the Lucedio Abbey, which is located just outside of Turin. I love the urban fantasy style, but the stories I really adore are those that also have some history or myth behind them. So that was the inspiration for the setting, and my first flash of a story idea.
Scratching in the Dirt is the first book in a trilogy. Did you plan it to be part of a series or did it just end up that way?
I didn’t plan Scratching as anything apart from me writing a story for myself so I could see what was going to happen to these characters in my head. But whereas the other long-form stories I’d attempted in the past floundered at around the 50-60k mark, this one wrote itself into a book relatively smoothly—and then just kept on going! I quickly had around 90k words and realized I hadn’t even started on the core of the story yet. The characters and storylines demanded more exploration. So, at that stage, I went back to the drawing board, and started taking it really seriously. I plotted out 3 full books, with a different character taking centre stage in each. And this was all before I’d joined any groups on social media to tell me that readers liked trilogies and series better than standalones. I was pretty chuffed when I realized I’d done something right, lol.
What was your favourite part of writing Scratching in the Dirt?
Creating little standalone scenes–vignettes. I love the work of the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, and there were some great illustrations created for his stories when they were first serialized. They convey so much about each character in a single picture. I try to do something similar when I write—create little pictures in my head like that, then bring them to life. In Scratching Tazia confronts 2 drunk demons who are preventing her from gaining entrance to Conn O’Cuinn’s club. It’s a short scene, maybe a page long, but we learn so much about her attitude from the way she deals with them. She is at once: amused, bored, annoyed, violent, and efficient. It’s how she deals with life. I love writing that stuff.
What was your biggest challenge in getting Scratching in the Dirt published?
No challenge from the physical publishing point of view – I always knew I would publish independently so didn’t even try to go traditional. Life’s too short. I’ve also owned several online businesses so didn’t see the technical or marketing side of the task as too overwhelming. That said, still a stack of stuff to do—especially as I chose to go wide straight away. I suppose my biggest challenge was completing the first chapter of Scratching. I must have rewritten that thing at least 20 times, plus had it edited over and over, before finally ditching the whole thing and starting the book from Chapter 2! My original Chapter 1 was a lot more dynamic but in the end it didn’t sound like me. Am I happy with my new Chapter 1? Not in the slightest, lol. I think a rewrite may be in its future!
If you could sit down for lunch with any author, dead or alive, who would it be & why?
I’ve always wanted to go for a beer with Jim Butcher (you never know, it may happen one day…) My style isn’t like his at all (I wish) but he was the first of the “true” urban fantasy writers. I still think he is the standard by which other writers in the genre tend to measure themselves. In fact, if I could get him and Joss Wheden around a table with a pint of Guinness (each), I’d be in heaven. Life goals!
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a new series based in the same world as the trilogy, Skye Quest. It’s another urban fantasy adventure series starring a Written by Birds trilogy alumni called Sowilo Skye. There will be a series of 5 novels, the first of which is called, Sowilo Skye and the Dead Playboy. Sowilo is an 800 year old human courtesan of Galician descent, who is now living as a high-class escort with powers of enchantment. She spends her nights entertaining the rich and famous of Las Vegas, and her days searching for the lost Guard Stone of the supernatural OtherWorld, so that she can reassemble the gateway and free her daughter who is trapped inside. Of course, a whole host of beings stand between her getting what she wants, including the spirit of a dead playboy, a human ghost hunter, a half zombie go-go dancer, and the usual smattering of angels and demons. Billy, Soren, and Joshua (from Scratching) all make appearances in that series too. Playboy should be out in the summer. I’m also working on my first paranormal horror novel. It’s been called a cross-between Fargo and Silence of the Lambs—with demons. So there’s that, lol. Also out this summer (hopefully!)
Sue was brought up in an English seaside town singing to Echo and the Bunnymen and worshipping Siouxsie Sioux. She now lives in rural Alberta, Canada, with more pets than people, where everyone is friendly, winters are long, cheese is bright orange, and the occasional moose wanders through her yard.
Her writing spans Urban Fantasy through Horror. The UF is darker than average. It dips a toe into Dystopia and splashes blood freely. The Horror is a little darker; still paranormally themed, characters run from flawed to freaky, blood is optional. You can find her at www.smhenley.com or on Twitter @SM_Henley. Or you can purchase a copy of Scratching In the Dirt right now!