When Lee French isn't doing Taekwando with her son, playing RPG games or preparing for the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, she enjoys writing anything that requires a lot of imagination. In addition to her young adult urban fantasy series, Spirit Knights, French also writes superhero stories, epic fantasy, and cyberpunk. As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about Girls Can't Be Knights, the first book in her Spirit Knights series, and reveals how it was inspired by a musical.
Please give us a short introduction to what Girls Can't be Knights is about?
At its core, Girls Can't Be Knights, as well as the rest of the Spirit Knights series, is about family. Claire has lost her family and, whether she wants to admit it or not, she needs one. Being alone is tough. No one should have to deal with that.
Tell us more about Claire - what makes her tick?
Claire has been through a lot before the book starts. Her family died, so she's spent six years in foster care. While many foster parents are amazing and wonderful, some aren't. Claire has lived with some good people, and also some not so good. No matter how great any of them were, though, she had to reckon with the traumas of survivor guilt, abandonment, and grief. Her one friend, a boy she connected with in her first foster home, is repeatedly moved in and out of her life by the system. These forces combined to harden her enough that she's tough and hard for anyone to reach. But she wants those connections, so she keeps opening herself up and trying, with very mixed results.
You are an avid gamer and into RPGs - how much does this hobby influence your work?
When I was 16, a friend invited me to a Dungeons & Dragons game. By then, I'd been reading fantasy and science fiction books along with spy thrillers and mysteries, so the idea sounded pretty cool to me. What I learned from gaming, though, made me into a storyteller. The most important things I learned are how to construct plots and complete characters. When you run a game, you have to give your players something to do, and when you play, you have to learn to react to the game's input "in character." Both of those skills take time to develop, so even though I haven't been writing novel-length works for my whole life, I essentially practised for a long time.
What drew you to this genre?
I'm fond of urban fantasy for multiple reasons. I can use Google Maps for the setting, which means I don't have to make up a whole lot of stuff. Real world ghost stories and urban legends are a great source of inspiration. Pondering how magic could both exist and be unknown is a fascinating thought experiment, as is the idea of the magical beings and forces manipulating events in a real timeline. Destroying real world locations in fiction is, in a way, cathartic. When I read urban fantasies, it casts the locations in a new light, especially for places I've been, and that's pretty cool.
What inspired you to write "Girls Can't be Knights"? Was there anything in particular that made you want to tackle this?
This book didn't start as a young adult story. It began as a riff on Les Miserables, the musical. As a teenager in choir class, we learned the music and gave a concert. We took a trip to see it on stage. I later found the 10th anniversary recording of the songs. Still later, I introduced my daughter to it, and she loves the music. This book began as the story of two men, each working for opposing spirits to further their respective agendas. I even named the antagonist John Avery as a nod to Javert. As I worked on it, I introduced a teenage girl as a conflict point. I wrote about a quarter of the book before I realized, much to my horror, that the girl could be replaced by a stuffed animal and nothing would change except pronouns and descriptions. That moment led me to recenter the story on the girl and rework things to facilitate her having agency. She wound up devouring the plot because I liked her so much.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I take taekwando classes with my son. I've ridden RAGBRAI, the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, five times. That's 60-80 miles of bike riding per day for a week as it crosses Iowa from the Missouri to the Mississippi. Though I'm terrible with vegetables, I have a fair amount of skill with growing flowers. My favorite kind are Shasta daisies, but I'm allergic to them, so my favorite kind to grow are actually daylilies.
"From RAGBRAI in 2017, my fifth time on the ride. That's a bicycle helmet on my head. Safety is important, especially with brains."
Does your book contain a hidden message about life?
My primary intent with the story was to present people with complex relationships and problems. Claire deals with bullying and a variety of types of foster parents, as well as lingering grief. Justin was abused as a child and has worked hard to overcome it. They both have lighter sides and darker sides. Despite being the heroes, both sometimes do the wrong thing, or have the wrong reasons. These threads wind through the whole series. I'd like to think there are some messages about bullying, police brutality, and fathers and daughters.
Can Girls Can't be Knights be read as a standalone? How does the next book in the series tie in with this one?
When I wrote this book, I wasn't intending it to be the start of a series. As a result, it stands on its own just fine. The ending is concrete. Book 2, Backyard Dragons, takes place a few weeks later, when Claire is getting the hang of the whole Spirit Knight thing. She and Justin are drawn into a conflict that allowed me to introduce more elements of the setting, like dragons, witches, ghost possession, the history of the spirit knight organization, and why average people don't know about magic.
Is there something that compels you to write? And do you find that writing helps you achieve a clarity about yourself or ideas you've been struggling with?
I've been writing stories since a few months after I learned to read. My mom still has a book I wrote in 2nd grade, with a cloth-over-cardboard cover and a shiny gold participation sticker from the scholastic fair I took it to. As a teenager, my wish was to become a published author. In college, my lowest moments came when I couldn't find time or passion for writing for one reason or another. Now that I've been publishing for almost six years as an indie, I've gotten so into the habit of writing that I get weird and cranky when I can't. Weirder, that is. It's become a muscle that feels good to flex, or a dessert I can't get enough of. Like chocolate. There's no more joyous feeling in the world than coming out of a mad writing fog, the kind that brings so much focus and madness that the world around me ceases to exist for an hour.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, as usual, I'm working on roughly fifteen projects at once. I have committed myself to delivering a new short story to my blog readers every month for as long as I can manage it, and I'm five months into that pledge. The final book of the Spirit Knights series, Boys Can't Be Witches, releases March 27, so I'm now most focused on two books and one short story that take place after that book, in that world. I've also got book 6 of The Greatest Sin, an epic fantasy series, in process, as well as a book about a shapeshifting velociraptor in space that I'm quite excited about. If all goes well, I should have another four books out this year.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
All my stuff, including a free short story every month, can be found at www.authorleefrench.com. I'm fairly active on Twitter @AuthorLeeFrench, and can also be found at a number of conventions with my books, including Norwescon in Seatac, WA, Miscon in Missoula, MT, and GenCon in Indianapolis, IN. And because none of this is enough work, I also run an indie book fair in my hometown, Olympia, WA, called CapitalIndieBookCon--this year is our third.