Author Interview: Tiffany Trent on In the Serpent’s Coils

Tiffany Trent was born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia. She fell in love with reading at an early age and writing shortly thereafter. After a childhood steeped in fairy tales, myth, and the natural world, she went on to earn three master’s degrees in English, creative writing, and environmental studies. Besides breeding poison frogs, her most exciting job occasioned a move across the globe to Hong Kong, where she worked as a senior editor for a wildlife conservation organization. However, she continued nurturing her secret passion for writing fantasy, and now writes while teaching English at Virginia Tech. Her first novel, In the Serpent’s Coils (Hallowmere)(Mirrorstone, 2007), is a BookSense Children’s Pick for Autumn 2007.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Oddly, the sprints and stumbles seem to be coterminous. I’d worked on an Asian-inspired epic for most of my life. I submitted it two years ago to a writer’s workshop, and it was so well received that I was introduced to a senior editor at a large house. He kept the manuscript for a year and a half before finally rejecting it.

I had only just begun work on the Hallowmere proposal, and this editor really pushed me toward stretching my abilities. “You’ve been working on this too long. Work on something else,” he said, before tossing my darling epic back in my lap.

That stung, but he was very, very right.

Two months later, I had the Hallowmere contract and was suddenly faced with working on a ten-book series that I would never have dreamed of writing before that fatal rejection. I’m very glad it all happened as it did!

Congratulations on the release of In the Serpent’s Coils (Hallowmere)(Mirrorstone, 2007)(excerpt)! Could you tell us a little about this new title?

As the Civil War ends, Corrine’s nightmare begins…

Orphaned by the Civil War, Corrine Jameson is forced to live with her aloof Uncle William. Mysterious letters, strange dreams, and supernatural encounters cause Corrine to be sent to Falston Reformatory School, where she is thrust squarely into an ancient conflict between mortals and fey. When Corrine’s schoolmates begin disappearing, Corrine wonders: will she be next?

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

A conglomeration of things, really. I’ve loved the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Marsh King’s Daughter” since I was a child. Once, when I was in Charleston, South Carolina, I took a ghost tour and learned about the Gullah, descendants of West African slaves who live in the South Carolina Low Country. Also, a dear friend of mine owns an old farmhouse in Culpeper, Virginia (where the book is set), and she would often tell me Civil War ghost stories while we sat on her porch at midnight. Mash all that together, and you get In the Serpent’s Coils.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I had been toying with this idea off and on probably since 2000, but I hadn’t really done much with it, because I was working on the aforementioned epic and writing nonfiction essays.

My editor, Stacy Whitman, was searching for YA dark fantasy writers and asked my friend Shannon Hale if she knew anyone who might write that sort of thing. Stacy and I began speaking in August 2005. I had a couple weeks to draw up a proposal–an interesting task when you’re living in the middle of the Chinese wilderness, as I was at the time. (I was staying with my husband during his research on Asiatic black bears).

When I got to Hong Kong, I sent her the single novel idea I had in mind. Then she asked, “What if you had to do a 10-book series? Can you expand this idea?”

I gulped, and said, “Sure!”

In late December 2005, the final decision was made and Hallowmere was born. In the Serpent’s Coils was completed by April 2006 and launched on Aug. 28.

For some of the books, I’m very fortunate to have a great group of co-authors, among them Angelika Ranger, Paul Crilley, and Amanda Jenkins (author interview). I’m very much looking forward to seeing their books.

I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful the Mirrorstone publishing team has been, from the editors to the folks manning their beautiful booth at this year’s trade shows. Everyone has been truly excited and supportive from the very beginning. It means a tremendous amount to have a publishing team with that much faith in me.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The challenges stemmed mostly from balancing the tight publishing schedule with teaching full-time. Being on deadline definitely changed the speed at which I wrote! Also, I had to do a bit of gear-shifting because I had been spending all my creative time steeped in Chinese lore for the other series and suddenly I needed to be thinking about Civil War-era Virginia. It was definitely a bit of a head-spinner, but also very refreshing–a splash of cold water to the brain.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were a beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Go toward the writing that feeds you, and don’t be ashamed of it. If genre feeds you, then feast. If literary fiction feeds you, devour it. Don’t let anyone make you feel that your desire to write is invalid or not worthy because of the stories that have chosen you to write them.

What would you say specifically on the topic of writing historical fantasy fiction?

What I like best about writing historical fantasy fiction is that it opens up a forgotten world by connecting me with people who are often long-dead. Getting to know someone’s past, even through something as simple as the weather she experienced in 1865, is an excellent exercise for the imagination. Such work forces me to seek answers. Even if I don’t always find what I’m looking for, research helps me craft the novel carefully.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

Life for me has always been a balancing act between writing and whatever else I needed to do to survive, so I’m very accustomed to splitting my time between those things. Thus far, promotion has been very well-organized by my publisher and I’m deeply grateful for that. Right now, I’m learning how to do promotion for myself. It’s definitely a challenge but also fun to use my creative skills in a different way.

What can your fans look forward to next?

More Hallowmere! Book 2 will be out in December and Book 3 will be out in March or April. A Hallowmere story called “Blackwater Baby” will be in the Magic in the Mirrorstone anthology, edited by Steve Berman, in 2008. A YA Victorian dark fantasy is also in the works.