Exclusive Interview: “Waking Fire” Author Jean Louise
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And sometimes an equally epic story begins with a single image. Take Jean Louise’s fantasy novel Waking Fire (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, she discusses what inspired and influenced this story — the first in a duology — including the single image that began this journey.
Photo Credit: Shyla Bass
To begin, what is Waking Fire about, and what kind of world is it set in?
Summarizing the book is hard for me because I want to share every detail, but I’ll try to be brief: Naira Khoum lives in a secret village that’s been secluded from the rest of the world for centuries. Up north, the warlord Sothpike destroys what remains of the Merzan empire, but Naira’s life is unaffected by war…until a group of refugees brings the Mistress, one of Sothpike’s followers, to their gates. When the Mistress and her horde of Vra Gool Dambi — an army of the dead — take over the village, Naira decides to fight back. She’ll do whatever it takes to save her village — even if it means going up against the Mistress and her Dambi.
As for the setting, the village is on the edge of a desert and the world was inspired by Middle Eastern and North African cultures. So it’s hot, but the food is delicious. The story is also populated with mostly brown and black characters, which you don’t see often in fantasy. I’m a big fan of representation, of everyone being able to find positive examples of themselves and their community in all forms of media, so filling the village with characters who look like me and the people I grew up with was very important.
Where did you get the idea for Waking Fire?
I’m not sure where the idea came from, but I had this image of a young girl and a powerful dragon needing to work together to stop a war. The rest of the story developed over time, but the initial idea was just that image.
Is there a significance to Naira and Nez being twins as opposed to just siblings? And, in a similar vein, to being brother and sister as opposed to twin sisters or twin brothers?
Yes, there is a significance to them being twins. However, I’m saving the reason for the sequel.
Once I decided to give Naira a twin, it was always a twin brother. I never even thought of making them twin sisters. Perhaps this is because I always wanted a brother growing up.
On a completely different front, the Vra Gool Dambi are monsters made from dead bodies. But are they zombies or something else?
I suppose they could be considered zombies, but that’s not how I think of them. Their only goal isn’t to eat brains, for instance. They were resurrected to be creatures of destruction and chaos and they can be controlled by the Mistress. They are incredibly fast and very strong. Sothpike uses them instead of a regular army because they are so difficult to kill.
In deciding how they’d behave, were you influenced by anything in particular?
I was definitely influenced by the wheelers from [the 1985 movie] Return To Oz. They have wheels for hands and feet and roll around on all fours and they terrified me when I was a child. The Dambi are similar in that they run using their hands and feet with arms that are freakishly long, which I found unsettling.
As you said, Waking Fire is a fantasy novel. But it sounds more like it’s in the vein of Robert E. Hoard’s Conan stories than The Lord Of The Rings or Harry Potter.
Yes, it’s fantasy, but the characters don’t cast magic spells or have special powers. But there are also fantastical elements, like dragon gods and the Dambi. I think comparing it to stories like Conan would be more fitting than something like Harry Potter. It’s kind of a fantasy-adventure story, with lots of fighting and very high stakes.
Waking Fire is also a young adult novel. But is it a young adult novel in that it’s written for young adults, or written about young adults, or that it doesn’t have anything inappropriate for young adults?
I wrote the book with young adults in mind and the main character is sixteen, so I think that would firmly place it in the young adult category. But I also wrote the story for people like me, and I haven’t been a young adult for a long time.
Which answers what was going to be my next question, about whether old adults could enjoy it as well…
I think anyone who is into fantasy with a fast-moving plot, some great fight scenes, and a heroine you can root for would enjoy this story. In fact, reading it might take someone’s mind off their aching knees. That should’ve been the blurb on the cover: “Reading this book will make you forget about your aching knees.”
Moving on to the always popular questions about influences, are there any writers, or specific stories, that you think had a particular big influence on Waking Fire?
This story in particular was inspired by Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. I was intrigued by the way he included religion into the story, which made me realize I could do the same. I hadn’t really read too many fantasies where religion played a big role before I read Elantris. The villagers in Waking Fire worship the dragon gods and the main character’s father is very devout. Religion is part of their culture, which affects the main character’s relationship with her father and makes her question putting her faith in anything other than herself.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games?
I think JRPGs like the Final Fantasy series inspired me to think big. Those worlds are massive, with so many characters and locations and lots of little emotional moments that slow things down for a second before we’re off to the next battle. I also listened to the Final Fantasy XV soundtrack on repeat while writing, so I hope I captured that epic feel that I got from the music.
And what about your cat? What influence did Martha have on Waking Fire?
I got Martha during the pandemic, so she came into my life when I was doing revisions. She’s a sweet, precious little kitty who loves to walk across my laptop and sleep on the keyboard, so if there are any typos, well, you know who to blame. (Me, of course — I would never throw Martha under the bus!) She’s a very calm cat which is helpful when I’m stressing about deadlines or finding the right word.
Now, my understanding is that Waking Fire is the first book of a duology. Do you know what the second book is going to be called, and when it will be out?
Yes, I have a title for the sequel but I don’t think I can reveal it just yet. It’ll be out in 2024.
What made you think this story had to be told in two parts, as opposed to one or, conversely, three or four or thirty-seven?
Originally it was planned to be four books, then I condensed it to three, and after consulting with my editor, we’ve got it down to two. For me, the world and the story were always too big for one book, unless it was a thousand pages.
Upon hearing that Waking Fire is the first book of a duology, some people will hold off reading it until the other one’s out so they can read them back-to-back. Do you think this is a good idea?
I understand why some people might wait until both books are out. I do the same when I’m watching a show; I’ll let the episodes build up and then binge watch them before the season finale. But I think Waking Fire ends on a satisfying note that will tide people over until book 2 comes out next year.
Earlier I asked if Waking Fire had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around, if I may, and ask if you think Waking Fire and its companion novel could work as a movie or pair of movies, a show, or a game?
I’d love to see the Waking Fire series on the big or small screen. I’ve never thought of it as a video game, though, but I’d be open to that idea.
When I write, what I’m trying to do is get the movie I have playing in my head down on the page so that others can see it too. So the book has always had a cinematic feel to me which I think would lend itself well to be adapted into a movie or television series.
And if someone wanted to make that happen, who would you want them to cast as Naira, Nez, and the other main characters?
I’d like to cast someone like Amandla Stenberg [Bodies Bodies Bodies] as Naira. I’d also be fine with casting an unknown actress in the role. I’d love to see [The Woman King‘s] Viola Davis as the Mistress. She has a powerful screen presence that I feel is necessary for the role. And I’d love to see her play a villain. Mahershala Ali [Luke Cage] and [Scandal‘s] Kerry Washington would be perfect as Naira’s parents, and I’d love to see a young actor like Jaden Michael [Colin In Black & White] play Nez.
Though if Naughty Dog wanted to adapt Waking Fire into a video game, I’d be all for it. They know how to tell an emotionally gripping story with horror elements and great combat. Those clickers in The Last Of Us are more terrifying than the wheelers. I don’t play many horror games, but I played The Last Of Us because the emotional journey of the two main characters was so well done.
Guerilla Games, the makers of Horizon Zero Dawn, would also be at the top of my list [for a game]. Their world design and combat are amazing and I was impressed by the story and characters — especially the main character, Aloy, who does not put up with nonsense, which is a lot like Naira.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Waking Fire?
One last pitch: If you’re into stories about gods, found family, scary monsters, lots of fighting, a little kissing, extensive worldbuilding, and a main character who will do whatever it takes to protect those she loves, then give Waking Fire a read.
Finally, if someone enjoys Waking Fire, what similar kind of fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for Waking Fire 2: Fire Walk With Me or Waking Fire II: Electric Boogaloo or whatever the other book is going to be called?
Definitely going to push for Waking Fire 2: Electric Fire Walk With Boogaloo.
If you want more found family, then I suggest Master Of One by Jaida Jones and Dani Bennett. If you need something with an epic feel, try the graphic novel series Saga by Brian K. Vaughan. And if you’re into great worldbuilding, then I highly recommend anything by Sabaa Tahir or Renee Ahdieh.