I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Renee Dugan author of The Chaos Circus and Darkwind, the first book of the Starchaser Saga. I first met Renee about three years ago on the NaNo forums, where we eventually joined the same cabin for a session of CampNano where we quickly realized that we didn’t want to lose touch between NaNo events and so our little writing group was formed. Renee is one of the most positive and encouraging people I have ever met and a more talented writer than I am. I’m so excited to introduce you to her and her amazing work. If you want to connect with Renee, which you absolutely should, I’ll post links to all of her social medias and her books below the interview.
You published your debut novel, The Chaos Circus, earlier this year. It’s a young adult dark fantasy novel about a girl who puts her life on the line in the trials for the opportunity to win a wish that will help her get back her most prized possession. If you had won the trails and could wish for anything in the world, what would you wish for?
This is such a dangerous question, because I know anything I wished for would just go so rotten! The perks of being in the Circus’s “mind”. Assuming I’m still me, I think I’d wish to always write books that have a positive impact on the people who read them. Emphasis on POSITIVE! Let’s see the Circus try to spin that one… 😉
I love that wish and I think it’s something you absolutely accomplished in The Chaos Circus. At least you did for me. I found Tessa’s journey so inspiring and I think her struggle to accept herself and stop trying to force herself to be normal and fit in is something that most people have struggled with at some point in their life. Is this something you’ve struggled with and what advice do you have for people who are still trying to find their authentic self?
I definitely agree! Tessa’s struggle with who she is and the feeling that she had to “normalize” was something I struggled with a lot growing up. I always felt so weird because I was tomboyish, I loved anime, I listened to different music from my friends…and like Tessa, I thought that that was a “bad” kind of different. It really took me getting grounded in my faith and the identity I draw from that to feel okay in my skin, and it’s still an ongoing struggle some days, too.
But as someone who spent years trying to find herself and then realized she was never lost, just covered up under who she thought she was “supposed” to be, I challenge people to ask themselves why “normal” matters so much to us. If people won’t love you where you’re at right now, they won’t love you when you change to fit in. Because they won’t have room to love you even then…they’re clearly too busy loving themselves, or loving the idea of self they value. When you live authentically and with healthy boundaries, you’ll attract people who won’t make you feel like you’re abnormal. But it starts with recognizing there’s nothing wrong with the skin you’re in, your quirks and ticks and oddities now. You are wonderfully made.
That’s such a beautiful message and one I think we all need reminding of every once in awhile. Now your next book (which will be out in early December) is called Darkwind and it’s the first book in The Starchaser Saga which is an epic fantasy series. Without giving too much away what kind of fantasy elements can we expect to see in the series? Magic? Creatures? Amazing other-worldly setting?
ALL OF THE ABOVE! Haha! There is some elemental energy going on, there’s special stones, and there’s creatures (some familiar to fantasy lore, some I made up and boy are they creepy, because I can’t design cute fluffy fantasy creatures, apparently they all have to have fangs and be oily). There’s also, at least I hope it comes across this way, that fantasy-vibe of adventure in the great wide somewhere, in a world that’s both beautiful and very much full of danger. There’s gods and underworld elements and creepy cults but there’s also – and my CP loved this back in the day, so hopefully that’s a good sign – some blending of decidedly non-fantasy elements, especially in the second and third books, that are some of my favorite parts of the lore and the bits I enjoyed most about world-building!
From the little bit and pieces of this series you’ve shared with me, I think you absolutely pulled off the fantasy vibe and I can’t wait to see the final product. I know you’ve been working on The Starchaser Saga for awhile, what made you decide that the time was right to publish it?
So it’s kind of funny…the “right time” for Starchaser actually felt like a year ago! That was when I first started querying, anyway. But once I hit the self publishing stage, I knew I didn’t want to start with Starchaser. I wanted to use my other book, The Chaos Circus to learn the ropes of the practice. That way I could learn a repeatable process of do’s and don’ts for tackling a series! Which I totally did. And now that The Chaos Circus has been out in the world for a while, I just felt like it was time. I’ve been eager to share STARCHASER with the world since the idea first came to me. I guess the time was right because I was too excited to wait any longer!
For me the right time to publish it would have been 2 to 3 years ago when I read the first excerpt you shared from it, but I’m impatient that way. And since you brought up The Chaos Circus again I have to know in what ways are The Chaos Circus and Darkwind similar? And on the flip side what’s some of the biggest differences between them?
So I think some of the big similarities are the themes of a woman starting off sort of at a disadvantage in her situation – for Tessa it’s being in the Circus while dealing with her self doubt and amnesia, for Cistine it’s being out of her depth on foreign soil where even her friends don’t really believe in her. There’s also a theme that runs through literally all of my books, I’m finding, which is the question of “What makes a monster monstrous?” or “Don’t judge a book by its cover!” So Tessa deals with that with Nicolai and Cistine faces that in learning more about this northern kingdom she was taught to fear. I’m really passionate about telling those kinds of stories, where any person, boy or girl, is challenged and out of their depth and has to find a way unique to their character to rise above it.
Another similarity–and again, I find this cropping up in ALL my books, not just these two!–is the concept of worth. Tessa very obviously struggles with her value, with feeling that she’s good enough to take up space in the world. Cistine deals with feelings of inadequacy too, but on a much subtler scale, which I didn’t even pick up on until a character spoke it to her in the middle of the second book (anyone who says we writers go into this with everything planned is sitting on a throne of LIESSS). But that was definitely a big one when I looked at the scope of their arcs.
In terms of big differences, Darkwind is much more steeped in just a sort of raw, natural beauty that’s common, I think, with High Fantasy. I really tried to cultivate that vibe of a vast world with some bleakness and wildness and that sense of “we’re on a quest!” Whereas TCC relies really heavily on its own insularity – the claustrophobia of the Circus, that it’s so big but you can’t really escape it. It’s all set in one place, and in contrast Darkwind jumps around between kingdoms and places within those kingdoms. And TCC is very rooted in bright, colorful descriptors and that whimsical summer-carnival-after-dark type of mysterioso. It’s much more dream-like that way, where Darkwind is sort of more…grounded, I think.
I wrote TCC right on the heels of Starchaser and I wanted to work in a totally different world, so I made their vibe as different as possible on purpose, too!
Now that we’ve gotten to know your books a little bit, I want to switch gears and get to know more about you. Do you have any writing quirks? Anything you have to do in order to start writing?
I guess I brought this on myself with the “quirks and ticks” comment earlier, right? 😉 I’ve pushed myself to write both in and out of my comfort zone, but if I get the choice, I really like having coffee (I KNOW, SHOCKING) and any kind of candle or wax warmer nearby. Also in certain phases I have to have my writing music playing! In terms of an actual quirk…other than typing without looking at the screen, one thing I do that I think is kind of funny is if a scene is rolling really well, I’ll get ideas for lines of dialogue or description a few paragraphs early so I have to jump down, write them out, then go back and connect things. People ask me why I don’t hand-draft, and that’s literally why. Doing that on paper would drive me bonkers!
I love the jumping back and forth. It’s so much fun when you’re really deep into the story and you’re just trying to keep up with your mind. That happens to me a lot when my characters are in a really intense conversation. I’ll write all the dialogue without any tags or descriptions and have to go back later in fill in all the details. I think another thing most writers have in common is the dream of seeing their books on the NYTs bestseller list or turned into a movie one day, but I want to know what is your own personal definition of success as a writer?
To me, success as a writer is one life changed. One heart reached. One struggling spirit that feels seen by what you poured out on the page. It’s one person who needed your story and found it. I would rather have people tell me my story brought light to their darkness than have any kind of bestseller sticker on the cover. I mean, don’t get me wrong, being a NYT bestseller would be FANTASTIC! But if that was all I ever achieved, as an author I would feel hollow. I don’t just want to write books, I want to reach people. So yeah, to me, the victory is in the people who walk away feeling better for reading my books! 🙂
Speaking lives changed, I’m a big believer that writing and publishing a book can have a huge positive impact on a person. How do you think you’ve changed since publishing The Chaos Circus?
I’m definitely braver! I’m the kind of person who has Big Anxious Energy the first time I do something, but after that I can’t say “Oh my gosh, I don’t know how to do THAT, I’ve never DONE THAT before!”, so I feel bolder the next time. I also think I’ve changed in a positive way in that I’ve stepped somewhat out of the “newbie” roll and I’m feeling more like an advocate for my craft and a voice to help mentor others who are maybe considering the indie scene or who need advice on x, y, or z in the trade. Obviously I still have lots to learn, and I have more ways to change! But this has been the most…adult I’ve ever felt in my life. I’m also slowly shedding my imposter syndrome and starting to introduce myself as a published author. That’s a HUGE change, haha!
Ok, last question and it’s kind of a big one. If readers could only take one thing from your books what would you want it to be?
That they are enough. That their value is intrinsic and their souls have shape and weight. That they’re stories too, and they matter, and they’re worth it. When I was growing up, sometimes I felt so alone and so wrong in my skin that I’d run away to books, and a lot of times they’d make me feel better but sometimes I walked away empty. I hope no one who runs to any of my books for comfort ever leaves empty. I just hope if they see a piece of their hurting hearts and beautiful selves in these characters, they know it’s a piece worth fighting for.
I want to thank Renee for taking the time to answer my questions. If you want to connect with Renee on social media, and you really should she’s awesome, check out the links below.