Interview – Heidi C. Vlach, author of The Stories of Aligare
Self-Publisher’s Showcase: Today we are joined by Heidi C. Vlach, author of Remedy, Ravel and Render, part of the Stories of Aligare series. Welcome to the Showcase Lounge, Heidi.
Heidi C Vlach: Hey, thanks for having me!
SPS: For any of our readers that haven’t come across your work previously, can you take a moment to tell us all a little about yourself?
HCV: I write the stories I’ve never been able to find on bookstore shelves. They’re magical fantasy stories about non-human characters and positive themes. But unlike children’s books about talking animals, I aim for a more literary approach with lots of food for thought. Sci-fi gives us aliens who are strange, yet really relatable and thought-provoking, and I think fantasy has the potential to do the same.
The Stories of Aligare look at what defines a person, and what an individual owes their society, and what makes life worthwhile. My characters are good people — but sometimes it’s unexpectedly difficult to do what’s right. I find that sort of quandary more interesting than evil backstabby plots.
SPS: What are your perfect writing conditions, and how often do you write?
HCV: I write erratically. Maybe for hours one day, then take a day or two off. Sometimes I set aside time in my day to write, and sometimes I can’t sleep so I drag myself to the computer. Ideally, I go to a nice little coffee shop and treat myself to a bite to eat while I’m working. I’ve always found that the muse responds well to bribery!
SPS: Can you put your finger on the moment where you decided that you wanted to publish your work?
HCV: In high school, I was daydreaming in class and I made up a video game scenario. Then I realized that if I made it a novel instead, I could lay out the entire story myself — like how I had been writing fanfiction stories for years. So I wrote Shades: Enlighten, my first novel-length original piece. About about ten pages into that story, I found it so empowering that I could make this decision to create a world and a story full of original characters. I wanted to publish and show my stuff to the whole world.
Shades: Enlighten was exactly the clumsy first novel you’d expect from a title like that, though. I spent a few years reworking its world and its society, and writing lots of short stories to hone my skills. I ended up with the Aligare world.
SPS: Why do you think it is that you have decided to write in the fantasy genre?
HCV: Haha, I don’t see any reason NOT to write fantasy! I love inventing new creatures, researching how objects were historically made, figuring out interesting angles for existing Earth lore, making rule systems for magical powers … I like everything about fantasy. And I want to help fantasy gain more respect as something other than an escapist genre full of clichés. Fantasy has the power to make really striking analogies that make us think. Sci-fi implies that everything can be neatly explained, but fantasy approaches life with more of a question mark.
SPS: What can you tell us about the land of Aligare?
HCV: The name Aligare comes from the Latin term alligare (“bind together”) — but the characters don’t call their land Aligare. It’s just “the land” to them. The place looks similar to North America or Europe, and has many familiar animals and plants. Every living thing in Aligare has one of six types of elemental magic (called casting) within its body. It’s a natural resource within their bodies or stalks. People and animals can all do small, localized tasks like producing a flame from their bodies, encouraging a plant to grow rapidly, or generating light. People can learn casting elements other than their natural default, too, so they can use a wide variety of skills — but using too much casting is as dangerous as bleeding too much.
There are many legends, mysteries and demons wandering the land. In particular, a “demon” might be anything the Aligare folk can’t explain. They consider diseases and mental illnesses to be demons preying on the peoplekinds — so they perceive a sickness outbreak as an invisible predator menacing the town.
SPS: There are 3 races that live in mixed-race villages: Korvi, Aemet and Ferrin. Can you give us a brief idea about the differences between the races?
HCV: A korvi is basically a bird-like dragon. Take a traditional European dragon, scale it down to the size of a big human man, stand it upright on two legs and give it feathered wings. Korvi are the whimsical artists, the social butterflies, and often the hired muscle. They have long lifespans, and their firecasting magic is the power source necessary for flight.
Aemets are betweenkind, which is a natural mixture of mammal and insect. Imagine humans if they had evolved from leafcutter ants or beetles. They’re hard workers, with plantcasting magic that makes them gifted at farming, crafting and healing. But aemets lack a fighting instinct; they’re built exclusively to flee from danger, and they get nervous easily. Their sensitive antennae let them detect air movement in a wide circumference around themselves.
Ferrin are furred, weasel-like creatures about the size of a housecat. They’re extremely sociable, adaptable and quick to learn, but they have a 20-year lifespan and little motivation to build their own, lasting traditions. Ferrin are jacks-of-all-trades who assist korvi and ferrin with everything. If they choose to live “wild”, ferrin forage in the trees much like squirrels do. Electricasting lets them defend themselves against large predators.
SPS: The first story of Aligare was Remedy. Can you tell us about the story?
HCV: Remedy is the story of Peregrine, an aging korvi whose mining career has damaged his hearing and weakened his wings. Peregrine relies on ferrin personal assistants to help him through life with their keen hearing and social skills. But since he’s outlived several of his little friends already, Peregrine is becoming guilty that his current assistant, Tillian, won’t get a life of her own.
Just as Peregrine decides to try living without his devoted assistant, a dreaded “demon” plague strikes a small aemet village. The local mage, Rose, is young and inexperienced, and she calls in otherkind help to save her people. Peregrine and Tillian pitch in — but with Peregrine needed to fly for supplies and Tillian needed to nurse the critically ill, they need to split up if Rose and her village are going to survive.
SPS: How does the adoption of Tillian by Peregrine come about?
HCV: As Peregrine’s assistants (called earferrin) have their own children, Peregrine has been choosing a kitten from each litter to succeed their parent when the time comes. Tillian knew Peregrine since she was born, and she looked up to her mother the devoted earferrin. So Tillian said yes without hesitation when Peregrine asked her to be the next earferrin. Peregrine is many things to Tillian — father, best friend, business partner, and a patient to be cared for. Peregrine has always been her world, so Tillian takes pride in her role.
SPS: A plague menacing the land will either strengthen their reliance on each other or push them apart. How did you find writing about such a serious situation?
HCV: When I was first developing the Aligare world, I had a random thought that ferrin would make great personal assistants, especially to hearing-impaired folk. I wanted to explore that concept — so I developed Peregrine and Tillian, two people living one life. And the entire story spread outward from them. Their core relationship is so complex and solid that even when Peregrine and Tillian struggled and I felt bad for doing this to them, I found it so compelling to see where their shared life would lead.
SPS: Are we correct in saying Ravel, the second novelette about Aligare, has a touch of Romance about it?
HCV: Hee hee, it sure does. Aster is a married aemet who meets Llarez, a charming korvi bard. There’s a romantic quality to their interaction — but I left the story open to interpretation. The reader can decide whether they think it’s a romance, or ultimately a friendship.
SPS: Can you tell us about the main protagonist, Aster, when we first meet her?
HCV: Aster is the head of her household — as aemet women usually are. She’s got a beloved husband and young children. She weaves fabric as her family line taught her to, and she’s good at it. But Aster is a young adult and she came directly to this household life, without questioning it or exploring her own skills. She’s never even left her village before. Despite her life being the aemet ideal, Aster has this feeling that she’s missing something.
SPS: She begins to question what she wants in life when she meets Llarez of Arkiere, a korvi storyteller. Is that deliberate on Llarez’s part?
HCV: Somewhat. When Llarez and Aster first meet, there’s a misunderstanding where Llarez thinks Aster is, ah, propositioning him. It’s quickly sorted out, but the mistake still gets Aster thinking about all the possibility life has to offer. Llarez is just an easygoing devil’s advocate. He figures, why NOT spontaneously change your life? Y’know, as long as that wouldn’t wreck a happy marriage.
SPS: Finally on the subject of the novels; can you fill us in on Render?
HCV: Render is the story of Rue, a young aemet coming of age and deciding what her job trade will be. She’s moved to a remote mountain village, newly founded by her family — but the village’s first years are a struggle. Otherkind aid doesn’t arrive as expected, and the crops struggle. Then the local wolves start hunting aemets for food, which is just unheard of. There’s clearly something wrong on this mountain and Rue wants to find the source of the problem. She’ll need the help of Felixi, a loner korvi who hunts wild game. Felixi knows about the area’s troubles — but he’s not eager to talk.
SPS: Tell us about Rue, where does her rumoured luck come from?
HCV: Female aemets are often named after plants as a way of honouring the plant goddess. Rue’s mother is particularly devout and she puts a lot of faith in Rue’s name, since the rue plant is said to draw allies and bring good fortune. Rue is a very logical person and she doesn’t like that sort of superstition — but she also doesn’t want to grudge anyone their peace of mind. So as the village falls on hard times, she bites her tongue and lets the “lucky” reputation cling to her because it seems to give people hope.
SPS: She befriends Felixi to help protect her village, tell us about their ‘relationship’?
HCV: Rue is an odd aemet who questions convention, and Felixi is a brusque korvi with an unusually low tolerance for other people. At first, Rue pressures Felixi into supporting the failing village, and he resents other people forcing his hand. But Rue is just doing what her elders ask of her. She agrees that her village’s actions are misguided. So she and Felixi develop this weird, prickly friendship where they can be refreshingly honest about current events. If these two were humans, they’d probably watch bad movies together and see who can make the cleverest jokes about the plot holes.
SPS: Can you take a moment to tell us how the covers to the 3 novels came about?
HCV: Well, I ruled out the idea of depicting the main characters on the cover. The sight of anthropomorphic peoplekinds, particularly the little, furred ferrin folk, would probably make people assume, “Oh, some cute animals. This must be an adventure story for my kids.” Which isn’t my goal at all! I decided that a beautiful, symbolic cover was the way to go. So I searched DeviantArt.com until I found Melanie Herring a.k.a. PurpleKecleon. She has has a phenomenal grasp of colour and light. I asked her if she’d be interested in a commission for a glowing magical gemstone, and she was very interested!
I couldn’t be happier with Remedy’s cover. The symbolism of organic, growing magic is exactly what I wanted, and it set the pattern for the other Aligare book covers. I commissioned Melanie again for Render, which is a cover I love even more (possibly because purple and orange are my favourite colours). As for Ravel, it’s a little novelette and I had no budget for art, so I made that cover myself. Llarez carries around a ball of knotted string that’s kind of a metaphor for life, so I made an actual big ball of knotted string and took a picture of it.
SPS: We’ve heard rumors of a table top game. What’s the latest on Omens of Aligare?
HCV: My awesome creative friends are working on the gameplay details! For those of you who aren’t familiar with tabletop gaming, imagine Omens of Aligare as … hmm. It’s kind of like a hybrid of checkers and Monopoly. You play by drawing cards and collecting coloured tokens to represent korvi, aemet and ferrin people. The board is a patchwork of forests, plains, mountains and villages. Moving people tokens to their ideal locations lets you gather resources, which you use to develop land, and to nullify illnesses and natural disasters. The whole thing is cooperative. The players all work together to take down Omens, and you can play cards to defend your fellow players from bad events. I’m really happy that Omens stays so true to the spirit of my writing.
SPS: It’s probably a good time to ask what can we expect next from the pen of Heidi C. Vlach?
HCV: You won’t have to wait long for my next book! Serpents of Sky will be available on February 17th, 2014 as an Amazon exclusive. It’s a collection of dragon-themed short stories, touching on everything from classic dragons who abduct princesses, to genetically engineered scientific dragons. And I didn’t leave Aligare’s dragonfolk out! This collection contains Raise (A story of Aligare), a novelette in which adopted ferrin Tenver tries to track down his korvi mom’s most precious possession after he accidentally trades it away.
SPS: Was the Self-Published/Indie-Published route always your preferred route for your work?
HCV: No, I didn’t really care how the publishing happened. I just wanted to make my work available to the public, and traditional publishing was the first route I tried. That was before Amazon popularized ebooks and self-publishing, and at the time it was the general consensus that only deluded failures stooped to “vanity publishing”.
After years of form rejections from agents and publishing houses, I enlisted two freelance editors in 2010 to actually look at the Remedy manuscript and tell me why no one was biting. One editor thought Remedy was a much-needed breath of fresh air for the fantasy genre. The other editor thought it was pointless and unsellable. Their suggestions couldn’t be more different. It seemed clear to me that fiction is subjective, so it doesn’t make sense to measure my writing’s worth by what some person in a New York office thinks.
The day after I talked to the dismissive editor — whom I had travelled to New York City to meet — I was taking a bus back home to Canada. Sitting there in that bus seat, watching the roadside go by, I decided to self-publish. There are people out there who appreciate the kind of thing I do, and I’m willing try finding them.
SPS: Has the experience so far been all that you thought it would be?
HCV: Pretty much! The Stories of Aligare aren’t hot sellers and I’m still figuring out how to market such atypical works — but it’s so rewarding when I see a new review from someone who embraced the book and now loves the characters. And I like deciding to go to fantasy conventions, or choosing my own fonts and stylistic details, or deciding to randomly give away some books — all the freedoms of being my own boss. Those freedoms make the work and obscurity worthwhile.
SPS: If you could give one piece of advice for someone looking to get into writing, what would it be?
HCV: Remember that everyone has an opinion, and the seven billion opinions on Earth will never all line up. It’s impossible to please everyone. So look around, do your research, figure out what you like and what you want to achieve, and then focus on that. My dad has a great way of summing it up: gather lots of advice, then discard some of it.
SPS: Before we bring this interview to a close, it’s your chance to name-drop. Anyone who you feel is deserving of more recognition at present or someone whose writing you have recently enjoyed? Now is your chance to spread the word…
HCV: Oooh, let’s see … I didn’t read many as books in 2013 as I would have liked. But I still have so many feelings about A Left-Handed Sword by Phil Geusz. It’s a wonderfully emotional novelette about the survivors of a disease that morphs humans into animals. Exactly the kind of thing I want to see more of in speculative fiction! A Left-Handed Sword is on Amazon and it’s worth checking out if you like quiet, introspective stories.
Also, since I mentioned my awesome cover artist, I’d like to share more of what she does!papayakitty.com has some of Melanie Herring’s work. She’s also doing an original webcomic right now at floraverse.com, it’s gorgeous fantasy work with great non-human characters.
SPS: Thank you for joining us today Heidi, and all the best for the future.
HCV: Thank you! I’ll keep at it!
SPS: For more information on Heidi and the stories of Aligare, please do visit her Author page here.