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Interview: Sarah Zama

Questions by Gary Oswald

This interview is with Sarah Zama, @jazzfeathers on twitter and a writer of historical fantasy stories.

Hello and thanks so much for talking to us.

Hi Gary. So happy and honoured to be your guest. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk with this community.

First of all, how did you get into Historical fiction and what appeals to you about the genre?

Getting into historical fiction has always been the thing to do, I suppose. I was a lover of history in my school days already. It was my favourite subject. I've always also been a reader. This did the trick, I suppose. History so naturally turns into fiction. Besides, I suspect that even in school, I loved history because it sounds so much like a story. But as I've grown up, I've also come to appreciate what we can learn from history. History is indeed a tough teacher, but if we're willing to listen, she can give us many precious gifts. I firmly believe that knowing history is the best way to understand who we are and who we may become.

In particular the time period you mostly focus on in both your fiction and your essays is the inter war period, why does that era interest you so much?

Because I think 1920s people look and feel a lot like us.

They went through historical changes very much like the ones we are facing now.

They were grappling with new technologies that were unthinkable only a couple of decades earlier. They faced social changes happening so fast it was difficult for anyone to keep up. The world was becoming larger and more approachable, which was exciting but also scary. Communities needed to open up, whether they felt comfortable with that or not. Women and minorities were finding new ways of expression and new social spaces. New social strata – like youth – were emerging.

To me, all of this sounds a lot like what is happening to us.

They were also the people who truly stepped into the new century.

One of the things that I love more about the 1920s, and that allows me to write historical fantasies, is that in that decade, past and future still mixed equally. New technologies were making headways into the lives of an ever larger number of people, but ways of life and beliefs still existed that belonged to the previous century. These two lifestyles lived side by side and almost in harmony, without one actually prevailing on the other.

In the 1930s, this was already not true anymore.

I really like this mix of past and future. I believe that the past and the future are interconnected, and we are happier when we learn how to balance the two. Which we apparently have a very hard time learning. But maybe, storytelling can help.

And what Dieselpunk fiction, other than your own of course, would you recommend to those new to that fiction setting?

One of the first Dieselpunk books I read was 'Broken Time Blues', an anthology of short stories. I loved it because it allowed me to see different ways to write Dieselpunk, including the kind that leans more on the fantasy element rather than the science fiction, and it's a bit less threaded by Dieselpunk authors. That's the one I most enjoy reading and writing.

In that anthology, I loved Ari Marmell's contribution. I fell in love with his Mick Oberon series, a mix of 1920s settings and classic fantasy tropes.

I then discovered Bard Constantine's (now Lewis Knight) The Troubleshooter Chronicles, which is instead a more 'classic' take at Dieselpunk, with a noir/1940s setting and a retrofuturistic kind of technology. I love Lewis's wry humour and the layer of stories that the series slowly builds.

Another series I've loved is Aaron Sikes's Gods of Chicago, which is also a noir/1920s retro-futuristic look at Dieselpunk. Aaron writes in a way that is very hard to put down.

More recently, I really enjoyed Allie Therin's Magic of Manhattan series, which, as you can probably tell by the title, is again more like my own fantasy take on the genre.

You're Italian but most of your writing is in English, what are the challenges of communicating in a foreign language? Do you worry you'll simplify things or say something you didn't intend to because of that?

Writing in your second language is the strangest experience. I've been writing almost exclusively in English for about 20 years now, and – this might sound odd – I feel more comfortable discussing some subjects, like fiction and creative writing, in English rather than Italian.

It's partly a question of habit. I do read and discuss these subjects almost exclusively in English because I belong to many different communities online where the official language is English. It's the oddest feeling when I discuss the same subjects in Italian, and something inside my head keeps telling me, Sarah, you're using the wrong language! LOL!

Yes, there is always the nagging feeling that I might get something wrong, but errors allow learning, so it's good, anyway.

You use the A-Z structure in your essays, and the books of them. Do you find that restricting or would you just not be able to get your thoughts in order without that template?

The A to Z structure for my books is actually more of an accident. My A to Z series (and books) derive from the A to Z Blogging Challenge that happens every year. The challenge is to blog every day in April (except Sundays), following the letters of the alphabet. A theme is not mandatory, but many of us choose one. In my eight years of participation, I've almost always chosen a 1920s-based theme.

I think this is a very effective way to research any subject. A few of my challenges (like the one about the Berliner Cabaret and the one about WWI) were indeed researches for my stories.

The A to Z challenge forces you to look outside of what would be your normal range of research. Because you need to follow the alphabet, you have to be very flexible with both your take on different subjects and the range of subjects you'll need to touch. You need to be willing to explore topics you might not have touched if left to your own device and be willing to look at what you know from different perspectives. And believe me, you need to be quite creative with some letters.

But in the end, I find this to be liberating and surprising rather than limiting, to be honest.

You have an extensive list of history books as sources upon your website. How important do you think it is to get the facts of a society correct when writing historical fiction or indeed essays?

My answer is two-fold here because fiction and essay need different takes.

With an essay, we need to be as accurate as possible. I don't think perfection exists, and anyway – contrary to what we may think – history changes all the time. Because new discoveries are made, for example. Because new material surfaces. Because historians focus on different aspects of life depending on the historical moment they are living.

So, what we think is accurate and true now, may not be so in a few years. Yet I think it's important to be as informed as currently possible when we write about actual history. We also need to be as honest as possible because, of course, our own history and culture will colour our perception of history.

Fiction is different.

The degree to which we adhere to history depends on the single author.

Personally, I prefer to be as true as possible to history. Not only for a question of respect (that's how I feel about it) but also because I find it more creative on a storytelling level. When I need to adjust my storyline to actual history, I need to look at things differently from what I'd do on my own. Practically, history forces me to explore different ideas and different situations which I'd probably never considered otherwise.

For example, in my unpublished trilogy set in 1920s Chicago, one of my main characters is an Irish wise woman. In my first draft, she would express her magical gift by casting runes. I wanted her to be a woman who revered tradition and was brought up in it. In one key plot point, she fashions her own runes and to do this, she gathers branches of a specific tree in a park.

But on my first revision, I looked deeper into it and discovered runes - at least the kind of runes we usually think about for divination - are not as ancient as we think. Turned out that this kind of runes became popular between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the period when medieval traditions were rediscovered, especially in the northern European countries. This happened especially in literate circles, and it's very unlikely that a country woman like Sinéad would know anything about it.

What to do, then? Further research showed she would probably cast bones rather than runes.

Then I had a very thorny problem to solve. She might have found the wood she needed easily enough, but what about the bones - sheep knuckles, six of them! How would she find them in a city like Chicago? In the end, I decided to use the meatpacking industry, which was huge in Chicago at the time. My character wouldn't be able to have direct access to that place, so I had to come up with a way to get her in the position to ask for a favour. This created a new subplot that didn't exist in my first draft, with new characters and the opportunity to explore Sinéad's relationship with 'magic' in a way that wasn't in the original idea but made the character far more complex and realistic.

This is what I mean. Trying to be as historically accurate as possible forced me to find new solutions, but this made the story richer and more realistic.

In terms of fiction, you tend to write Historical fiction with a fantastical element (spirits in your Ghost books for instance). Does that give you more freedom to change things than a straight historical would?

It's hard to say why we choose a favourite genre, don't you find? There's a lot of personal liking to it.

I've always been fascinated by fantasy stories. I got into myths and legends when I was a kid. At 10, I could tell you the names of all Greek and Roman gods, semi-gods, nymphs, satyrs, heroes, monsters, what have you - and the plot of most main stories.

At 12, I wanted to know everything about King Arthur and his knights. Then I wanted to know where those stories came from, which was when history and legends started to mix in my head.

With this premise, is it any surprise that at 16, when I started frequenting my town library nearly every day, I naturally floated towards the fantasy section? Which wasn't very large, by the way, so I went on a mission to read every single fantasy book in the library.

The fantasy elements in my stories come from myths and legends that actually exist in our world. I would say that I have a similar approach to them as I have to history. The more accurate I am, the more creative I become.

But on the whole, I'd say that it isn't about how easy or difficult it is to write. It's more about affinity. I'm fascinated with the idea that the world we see around us might not be the only world there is. That with a tiny slide of perspective, we could see a different world, similar to ours, maybe, but not the very same.

What if those myths, legends and fairy tales were glimpses of a different world that exists beside ours? Wouldn't that give us the ability to think larger, differently - yes, also more freely and less scarily?

I do think that fantasy is about freedom.

One of the choices when trying to capture a society of course is through whose eyes. A working class farmer in Cornwall is going to have a very different 1920s than a middle class socialite in New York. Susie, the protagonist of 'Ghosts through the Cracks', is a poor Chinese immigrant who as the wife of a Chigagoan speakeasy owner has managed to get into the middle class suburban lifestyle. What about that view appealed to you?

One of my friends, who's also one of my most faithful readers, once told me that I am the singer of the underdogs. I like that definition. I'm always more intrigued by common people's lives rather than the big historical figures. When I research history, I like going after everyday life. I like learning how people like me lived their life, how they felt about it, what dreams they had, what hopes and fears they had about the future.

Of course, when you research history, you also need to know the big events. Those will have affected people too. But they are not what fascinates me most about history. It's the tiny details, the little things of life, the feelings and thoughts of people that will never get in the limelight.

And when I write fiction, those are the people I'm most interested in writing about. The more different they are from me, the more I'm intrigued.

After all, writing – like reading – is a way to discover the world and experience what our life will likely never have us experience. It's an opportunity to enlarge our sense of sympathy by getting close to people we'll never be closed to in real life. But then, getting to know them in fiction may help us understand them better in life.

You've been writing and self publishing for 7 years now. What would your advice be to other authors in terms of that process?

To never assume that you know.

The publishing industry is very peculiar. If we want to do a good job, we need to know how it works, even if we are going to self-publish.

I was lucky because I've worked in a small publishing house in my town for almost 20 years. I've learned a lot about the editing process, how a book is made, how distribution works, and how the market works and changes all the time. And also what expectations are reasonable and what are really too far-fetched.

If you want to self-publish, you'll have to do the entire job. I often hear people say, 'I want to self-publish because then I'll have total control over my creation.' But do you really know what that means? 'Have total control' is a very alluring magic formula, but behind it, there's a lot of work, learning, spending money, trial and error. And I won't hide it, a lot of disappointment too.

Self-publishing is a lot more than uploading a Word document to Amazon, so I invite writers who want to self-publish to educate themselves in the 'lore' of the publishing industry, however long it may take.

Is it worth it? I do believe so!

And what are your plans for the future in terms of writing?

I've been working on a Snow White retelling set in 1920s Germany for a few years. I'm on the fifth revision, and I hope to be able to publish it reasonably soon.

I'm also working on a story set in 1920s Berlin, about which I know everything about the characters, but I'm still struggling with the plot. I don't see that being published very soon.

Then I want to publish all the historical series I've written for my blog. There are quite a few, with my A to Z Challenge from last April (Enter the New Woman) due next.

And I'm writing books about creative writing, with a course probably becoming available in the next months. It's a new endeavour, but something I've wanted to do for a long time.

I keep myself busy, as you can see. LOL!


Sarah Zama writes historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s and blogs about the culture of that time period at The Old Shelter.


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