This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author Tracy Townsend, whose debut novel is The Nine. Here is the publisher’s description:
A book that some would kill for…
Black market courier Rowena Downshire is doing everything she can to stay off the streets and earn enough to pay her mother’s way to freedom. But an urgent and unexpected delivery leads her face to face with a creature out of nightmares.
The Alchemist knows things few men have lived to tell about, but when a frightened and empty-handed courier shows up on his doorstep he knows better than to turn her away. What he discovers leads him to ask for help from the last man he wants to see — the former mercenary, Anselm Meteron.
Reverend Phillip Chalmers awakes in a cell, bloodied and bruised, facing a creature twice his size. Translating a stolen book that writes itself may be his only hope for survival; however, he soon learns the text may have been written by the Creator himself, tracking the nine human subjects of his Grand Experiment. In the wrong hands, it could mean the end of humanity.
This unlikely team must try to keep the book from those who would misuse it. But how can they be sure who the enemy is when they can barely trust each other? And what will happen to them when it reveals a secret no human was meant to know?
And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Tracy Townsend:
It took every ounce of my will to keep from answering the phone on the first ring.
It was a Monday morning, and I was waiting for the call from the literary agent who’d read my manuscript with such fervor, we’d spent the last weekend chatting over email about my career. He’d read the whole manuscript in five days, then scheduled a call. We were to discuss a revise and resubmit, something he didn’t usually handle over the phone. This was Very Serious Business.
When my phone finally blazed to life, I did my best to be good. Disciplined. Focused. Professional. And I was, mostly.
I answered halfway through the second ring.
The conversation glowed with praise and visions of my potential. The agent had been looking for a writer of adult fantasy for while. He wanted something smart, nuanced, and dark. Something stylistically complex. He saw the right signs in The Nine. I listened. I paced. I always pace when I’m on the phone. It helps keep me from talking too fast. When we got to the part about the agent’s concerns, I had to sit down and take notes. Everything was fine (my now pent-up energy notwithstanding) until we got to his last concern.
“About the aigamuxa,” he said. “I’m not sure about them.”
My heart had been racing. Suddenly, it clogged with an emotion I couldn’t quite parse. Disappointment. Frustration. And, yes. Fear. I was ready to hear that he thought ogre-like antagonists with eyes on their feets were just too weird. Or that he wasn’t sure how they could be perceived as a threat, given that bizarre anatomy. I was ready for any of a half-dozen skeptical reactions to The Nine’s antagonist species, because I’d fielded them already with beta readers and critique partners. I wasn’t ready for this conversation, though.
“I think fantasy readers need a villain they can hate or fear. Something morally concrete. The aigamuxa,” he paused. “They actually have good reason to hate human beings. They were colonized and enslaved. Now they live on the margin of society, without any rights or security. Of course they hate people. Anybody would. How can you ask the reader to see them as the monsters?”
I blurted the words out before I could stop myself. “That’s not what I want at all.” So much for being professional.
My pen dropped from my hand, rolling off the notepad to sit beside my keyboard. What was I thinking? This agent had New York Times bestsellers on his list. Clients with movie deals secured on their debut novels. “Sold at auction” was quickly becoming his middle name. Why wasn’t I just saying, “Of course! I can change that!”?
“Let me explain,” I said, getting back to my feet to pace. I took a breath and tried to speak slowly. “The aigamuxa aren’t villains. They’re antagonists — the ones who oppose. And they are people. They may have claws and razor teeth and eyes on their feet, but they’re still people. They’re not wrong to hate humanity. I want the reader to recognize that. I want the reader to be afraid for the protagonists and to root for them and also recognize that what threatens them isn’t just evil for its own sake.”
“But readers need to know they’re on the right side. Tell you what. What if the aigamuxa are this proud warrior people and they lost some battle to humanity, and then got left alone to lick their wounds, so now they want revenge for the blow to their pride? Like Germany after World War I, perhaps?”
I shook my head. “My characters have done terrible things. They aren’t the good guys. And mankind isn’t, either. They’ve treated the world like it only exists to fuel their knowledge of divinity, or like it’s some kind of puzzle God wants them to solve. If they were only good, what’s so scary about a book that records God’s judgments? What would anybody have to be afraid of, if we could be sure we were in the right? I don’t want to coddle my readers. I don’t want a story with neat moral boundaries and tidy, clean conflicts. It’s full of wounded hearts and people who have been done wrong. Monsters should get the same treatment.”
Another pause. “It’s your story. You should do what you think is right. I’m just not sure that’s going to work.”
We talked a little more, then hung up. Months later, I sent him the revision. As it turns out, the agent didn’t think it worked, but another agent did, and offered representation just hours after the first emailed his regrets. We went on to sell my book of washed-up mercenaries and antagonists with just causes and heroes with baggage and existential uncertainties. Fighting to keep my monsters human (and my humans a little monstrous) was the scariest part of The Nine because it was a battle for the soul of the book itself. I hadn’t set out to do something simple with my readers’ hearts, even if might sell more easily or get better reviews. I had set out to explore what scares me about human nature, what hope we have of redeeming ourselves, and what happens when we’re called to account for the wrongs we’ve done.
I had to write a book I was too scared to give up on. I hope it scares you the same way.
Tracy Townsend holds a master’s degree in writing and rhetoric from DePaul University and a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from DePauw University, a source of regular consternation when proofreading her credentials. She is a past chair of the English Department at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, an elite public boarding school, where she currently teaches creative writing and science fiction and fantasy literature. She has been a martial arts instructor, a stage combat and accent coach, and a short-order cook for houses full of tired gamers. Now she lives in Bolingbrook, Illinois with two bumptious hounds, two remarkable children, and one very patient husband. Her debut novel, The Nine, is the first in the Thieves of Fate series, published by Pyr November 14, 2017.