Author Interview: Rachel Neumeier

Photo of author Rachel Neumeier and one of her Cavalier King Charles SpanielsBook View Cafe is delighted to welcome writer Rachel Neumeier to our cooperative! Best known for her adult & young adult fantasy and science fiction, Rachel debuts at BVC with the first ebook of her Death’s Lady Trilogy, The Year’s Midnight. The rest of the series will follow this fall and winter.

Rachel entered academia with the intention of gaining a PhD and specializing in research. She started writing fiction while a graduate student to relax and play with something unrelated to her studies. But as time went on, she realized that she didn’t love research–she loved storytelling. She loved putting her research into all the things she loved–dogs of many breeds, styles of cooking from around the world, and of course creating exciting stories.

All that training for biology means that you will find interesting and surprising sources to the tales she tells, and her tutoring students benefit from the math and chemistry she doesn’t use as often in her tale spinning.

As for her own life, her hobbies became her professions. She not only writes stories and sells to an international audience, she breeds and shows champion dogs, has a formidable vegetable garden and fruit orchard, and cooks in a variety of styles and world cuisines, both for pleasure and health. After all, cooking is a science–it’s chemistry plus heat, only you end up with dinner, not a paper.

Rachel was kind enough to answer questions about her books, her ideas on writing, and her passion for breeding dogs that move like poetry. Read on to learn more about our newest member. (We hope that the day will come when we are all sitting at a convention, and Rachel is explaining why the social behavior of elephants and sperm whales is similar!)
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1) Rachel, on your author site you are delightfully vague about what you trained in and how you have used your academic background through the years. You specifically say you “started writing fiction to relax when you were a graduate student and needed a hobby unrelated to your research.” What research was that?

Your first publishing credentials were articles in journals like The American Journal of Botany. But the day came when there was a fantasy novel, and a sale. Take us back. Was there a moment – an ah-ha! moment – when you knew this was what you wanted to do? That fiction was worth pursuing, and fantasy was what you wanted to write? Or did the realization come over you gradually?

A) Since you ask, here’s a link to a paper that I developed from my master’s thesis: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21669717/. I warn you, it’s boring. The title is, “The effects of ultraviolet-B radiation and intraspecific competition on growth, pollination success, and lifetime female fitness in Phacelia campanularia and P. purshii.” I had something in Oecologia too, but I honestly don’t remember the title.

I really did start a fantasy novel just to play with it, not as a serious project. I believe I had just read a fantasy novel that included a familiar type of princess – impulsive, thoughtless, irresponsible, silly – and I thought I’d play around with writing a novel with a princess who was thoughtful and responsible and not at all silly. That grew (eventually) into a 1500-page trilogy. Writing this took years. I’d set it aside for months at a time. During those years, I gradually realized, and even more gradually acknowledged, that I did not like research, that no matter what topic I pursued I was never going to like research. I shifted from the PhD track to the master’s track and did the project that resulted in the above paper, knowing all the time that I was going to change my direction away from academia as soon as I got the master’s degree.

So, having acknowledged that, well, by the time I finished my master’s, I had also finished this trilogy. It was quite good at the sentence and paragraph level, but impossibly flawed at the level of plot and pacing. But I’d learned A LOT from writing that trilogy – most importantly, I learned I could finish a long project. That was when I decided to sit down and write something much shorter and as good as I could make it, something that might be worth publishing. That was The City in the Lake, which became my debut novel.

Ten years later, I went back to that original, impossible fantasy trilogy, took an ax to it, and turned it into two standalone fantasy novels. One came out from an imprint of Random House and the other from an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The only way to tell now that they were both created from the one trilogy is a certain similarity in names and a definite similarity in geography. I wrote a post about taking that trilogy apart here.

I’ve never regretted for one second changing directions. I was never, ever going to be happy doing research, even on topics that genuinely interested me.

2) Where did the world of The Year’s Midnight begin for you? Did you first conceive of the physical world or of its people? Of the magic, or of Tenai’s history? What made you think of writing a reverse portal story?

A) I nearly always start with a scene – complete with setting, characters, dialogue, everything. The characters and the world then develop from those early scenes, and the plot works itself out as I go.

In this case, the first scenes that worked themselves out in my mind involved Tenai’s arrival in our world, and then her later return to her own world. The double portal structure came from those scenes.

What I was really trying to do with this story, very deliberately, was separate the role of the point-of-view character from the role of the protagonist. This is a technique I’ve admired in other works, such as Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles.

3) How did you weave the warrior Tenai? Do you have training in any of the martial arts, or in sword work? Or did you research your eyes and fingers to the bone so that every step Tenai takes is weighted with the stride of someone trained to both kill and teach what she knows?

A) Tenai is pure poetry. I don’t know much about swords or fencing other than what you can learn from reading a lot of fantasy novels, many by people who do know a lot about swords and fencing. On the other hand, Jenna is written realistically. At the time I wrote the original manuscript for this trilogy, I was involved in martial arts – I’d just earned my black belt in taekwondo. It’s been long enough now that couldn’t write Jenna’s scenes with as much detail today.

4) What made you decide to make your primary protagonist a psychiatrist?

A) I was reading a lot of psychology at the time. I think I wanted to create a protagonist with the deep compassion so evident in some of books I was reading. I wrote this trilogy some time ago, but I specifically remember reading Peter D. Kramer’s Should You Leave? at the time and I know that was influential. That’s a very fictionalized nonfiction book that is … well, it’s hard to describe. On its surface, this looks like an advice book. That’s not exactly what it is. It’s about relationships and the perception of relationships, and also about the history of psychiatry. I wanted to create a protagonist with the kind of understanding and compassion shown by the best psychiatrists and psychologists described in books like that.

5) Do you think your “voice,” the thing that stamps your writing as uniquely yours, changes from book to book, story to story – or can you see themes that recur in your work?

A) I think voice has two important components: style and theme. For me, style changes dramatically from book to book. For example, the Death’s Lady trilogy is written in third person that is sometimes fairly close and sometimes a little more distant, but always strictly limited. The first book, in our world, is written in a straightforward style. Once the story moves into Tenai’s world, then although Daniel’s style doesn’t change, the people he meets all speak with distinctly non-modern-American syntax and locution.

But none of this is very similar to other works of mine. Some of my books, such as The City in the Lake, are written in very close third person and a lyrical style. The main books in the Tuyo series are written in first person; the main protagonist speaks and thinks in shorter, simpler sentences than the secondary protagonist, who belongs to a very different culture. For me, style varies a lot depending on the story.

However, I always do seem to come back to the same themes: trust and what that is, forgiveness and what that requires, choices that have consequences and can’t be taken back, family, kindness. In the Death’s Lady trilogy, Daniel is a normal, everyday person, but deeply compassionate and kind even when his own situation becomes more and more difficult.

6) Do you read for pleasure? Fiction or nonfiction? Do you have favorite writers, genres? What are you currently reading?

A) Oh, certainly. Both. About 90% of my reading is fiction, and of that, at least half is fantasy. The other half is SF, historicals, mysteries, romance, a few thrillers, a little horror. I don’t have as much time for reading as I’d like, as I don’t read all that much fiction while working on a novel of my own. Fiction is too compelling and pulls me away from my own projects. I do a lot of re-reading, though, even when working on something of my own.

I read more nonfiction when I’m avoiding fiction, though as you can see from the ratio, I still wind up reading a whole lot more fiction than nonfiction. For me, nonfiction is slanted heavily toward evolutionary theory, animal behavior, psychology, and sociology. Most recently, I picked up three books on dinosaurs – one on sauropods, one on theropods – both of those mostly for the artwork – and a huge thousand-page compilation of papers from a symposium on ceratopsian dinosaurs. Those are the horned dinosaurs, such as triceratops.

7) What do you think of the labyrinth of modern Internet promotion and publishing? Fun? Challenging? A distraction from the writing?

A) Not at all fun.

Definitely challenging.

A serious distraction from writing, and not in a good way.

8) Why did you fall in love with Cavalier King Charles Spaniels? Not just as a wonderful companion dog – you’re a breeder, which is incredibly demanding. How did this become your hobby?

A) Cavaliers are a really good fit for me. I say this as an expert on breeds and dogs in general. I’m the sort of person who can recognize a Swedish Vallhund or a Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen at a glance, even if the dog isn’t groomed, and tell you what the breed was developed to do and what the typical characteristics are, and critique that particular dog’s structure too, and tell you where the dog may fail physically as he gets older.

There are literally a hundred breeds I love and that would work for me. My first dogs were Papillons, which were also perfect for me at the time. I learned a lot about gentle training from my Papillons; my Cavaliers get the benefit of that. I’ve put a lot of performance titles on a lot of dogs and train almost entirely off-leash, using methods I learned by teaching my Papillons a lot of obedience exercises and tricks.

When I moved to the country, I chose the Cavalier because I like the sweet Golden Retriever personality but prefer that in a smaller package. Cavaliers are small enough for me to pick up, but big enough to be safe from owls and hawks. I like Cavaliers because they’re fluffy, but not too insanely much work to keep in show condition; and because Cavaliers are calm and will settle down for hours at a time while I write. Even my liveliest dogs are much calmer than the typical Jack Russell Terrier! Also, I picked the Cavalier because I know a good bit about genetics and was fairly confident I could produce pretty, healthy dogs.

You are so right about breeding. If you do it well, breeding is incredibly demanding, often very expensive, and sometimes – too often – absolutely heartbreaking. I’ve had weak puppies I struggled to save die at three weeks – after their eyes were open and they really looked like they might make it. It’s very, very difficult at times. In fact, it’s difficult all the time. I’ve bred sixteen litters, I’ve been breeding for fourteen years, and I’ve been on the edge of quitting just about that whole time.

I’m not sure how much time I’ve poured into learning about canine structure and movement and what makes for correct, efficient movement. Or learning to look at Cavaliers and see beautiful versus just okay type. I remember the first time I was sitting by the ring at a Cavalier specialty and learned what is meant by a dog who “stops the eye.” That was a magnificent young dog – Miletree McNab, who went on to become an AKC and CKCSC Champion. I couldn’t take my eyes off him – he stopped my eye every time I glanced at him. “Neck is a bit short,” I thought. “But he’s going to win today.” He did win the specialty, and went on to be one of the top-pointed Cavaliers of the decade. He’s back in the pedigrees of some of my own dogs now.

Breeding a litter is like slow-motion, high-stakes gambling. Each time, you might get a truly superlative puppy. If you picked the right stud dog for your girl – if the breeding takes – if she successfully carries the litter – if the whelping isn’t a disaster – if everything lines up in a row, you might get something truly beautiful. Or, if everything goes well but you don’t get puppies that lovely, then you can make one or few families really happy by handing them a beautiful, healthy, well-socialized pet that’s just the dog they wanted. I’m very careful to match every puppy to the family to make sure everyone, the puppy and all the people, are indeed happy with each other.

I’ll take this opportunity to share my post about my beautiful, special Cavalier, Pippa, Sevenwoods Epiphany, who passed away in July at the age of fifteen years and ten months.

That ought to give anyone a good idea of the breed in general and an even better idea of what my dogs mean to me.

9) Are you still a huge fan of cooking? Is Indian still your favorite, or have any other cuisines challenged Indian for the top spot?

A) Alas, in recent years, I’ve found it necessary to stick semi-closely to the keto diet. I hate that because yes, Indian is still by far my favorite. I still cook a lot of Indian dishes, but cauliflower rice is an abomination compared to actual rice. I still do use rice sometimes. I like red cargo rice best.

I don’t think I’ll ever change my mind about Indian cuisines being the best on the planet!

10) What do you passionately want to talk about that no one ever asks you about?

A) You know, it’s simply amazing how few people want to hear ALL ABOUT maniraptoran dinosaurs – definitely the neatest dinosaur clade. I mean, I realize some people are fond of sauropods, and that’s fine, I guess, but the maniraptorans are the greatest!

Or, I really would like a chance to talk about the extinct canid subfamilies, the hesperocyanids and borophagines, and the way the story of canid evolution is the story of carnivore adaptation to the much cooler and drier environmental conditions increasingly seen through the whole span of the Oligocene, and why modern canids are faster in open country than borophagines were.

I have no idea why no one ever seems to ask me to contrast the social behavior of African painted dogs with wolves. African painted dogs are so different! And no one knows that! In fact, not enough people really know what wolf behavior is like either. Werewolf tropes have crept into the pop culture understanding of wolf behavior, and while I like werewolves fine, this is highly misleading for understanding actual animals in the real world.

The social behavior of elephants and sperm whales is surprisingly similar. No one ever asks me to explain why these two very different animals should happen to be behaviorally similar.

In other words, I’m happy to talk at length about almost anything to do with evolution or animal behavior.
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Thank you, Rachel, and again–welcome to Book View Cafe!

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Author Interview: Rachel Neumeier — 5 Comments

  1. I really like almost all Rachel’s books, I’m glad she is joining BVC.

    I like how the different standalones and series have distinct writing styles, that fit the books; e.g. City in the lake reminded me strongly of Patricia McKillip’s poetic style of writing, while the style of the Tuyo series is much more down-to-earth, which fits well with those characters and their grappling with hard decisions and cross-cultural communication; The Floating Islands is accessible to younger as well as older teens (and adults, too).

    I certainly think all her standalones and duologies are well worth checking out for those who like fantasy with generally intelligent protagonists and solid stories, and maybe some mild romance.

  2. So glad to see Rachel Neumeier joining BVC. I accidentally stumbled onto the Tuyo series and then started looking seriously for her work. Welcome to BVC (and a great interview, too, Ms. Kimbriel)!

  3. Two of my favourites talking to each other = lovely start to my weekend. I hope you have a successful and healthy time, both of you, Rachel and Katharine.

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