Five months ago to the day, Five Directions Press released Song of the Siren into the world. And in a happy coincidence, Terry Gamble—whom I interviewed about her latest novel The Eulogist back in January—sent me a set of questions about the book, which she finished not long ago. So to celebrate Juliana and Felix’s fifth-month anniversary, I’m running the Q&A here, with heartfelt thanks to Terry for her thoughtful and far-reaching questions.
Juliana is such an interesting character. It's clear that she has appeared in earlier books. Why did you choose her to be the protagonist in Song of the Siren?
I’m glad you found Juliana interesting! What we see in the earlier novels is mostly the calculation behind her beautiful façade. After a while, I became curious about what made her so cold—what she was hiding that destroyed her relationship with Alexei. Readers get the first hint in The Vermilion Bird, and that hint convinced me not only that she had a story worth telling but that it was the most dramatic of any character I’d written. So I chose her as my protagonist to kick off the new series.
It was like opening the flood gates. She kept me awake at night for weeks, pouring her tale into my head whether I wanted to hear it right then or not. But I’m glad I made that choice, because she revealed depths I hadn’t expected when I first created her.
The affection between Felix and Juliana is so engaging. Why did you decide to have each of these characters suffer from physical impairments?
Because Juliana is so guarded. I realized early on that the only way she could change, as we want characters to do in novels no matter how often people don’t in real life, would be if I pulled the rug out from under her. Since childhood, her face has guaranteed her survival, so by letting her contract smallpox I force her into a position where she can no longer rely on her beauty. That’s the negative; the positive is that with the right kind of support, she has a chance to deal with a problem that she has no choice but to confront as she ages and to realize that in fact she’s always been more than a pretty face. For that, she needs a friend who can see past her scars and, by holding up a mirror, help her appreciate her true strengths and abilities.
I wasn’t sure at first that it would be a man, but Felix presented himself, cane and all. His handicap exposes him to the same kind of prejudice that Juliana faces, but he’s had more time to learn how to cope with it and, as a nobleman, more resources than Juliana. In the sixteenth century, even more than now, women were often judged solely by their birth and their beauty, and at this point Juliana has neither. By looking beyond the surface, Felix makes it possible for Juliana to trust him, and eventually herself. He can do that because he knows what it’s like to wake up one morning with your world overturned.
Your research is extensive. What set you on this journey to learn about Russia and Eastern Europe?
I’ve been studying Russian since the tenth grade. I took my first Russian history class in college, and I was hooked. A thousand years of history, and most of it reads like a movie script: Vikings, pirates, invading Mongol hordes, the Terrible Tsar, the Time of Troubles, Peter the Great cutting off his courtiers’ beards with a pair of shears, you name it. I could write a hundred novels without making anything up!
Tell me about your writing process. Does the history drive the story and plot? Or are you more concerned with character development? Do you do your research before or as you are writing?
If the history is dramatic enough—and in Russia it often is—then it can drive the plot. That was true of The Vermilion Bird and especially The Shattered Drum, although even there the real story takes place among my characters, and the history is just the backdrop.
I work hardest on the character development, because plot comes easily to me. Before I start writing, I fill in questionnaires on my main characters: big things like goal, motivation, and conflict but also questions that open up how one character interacts with others (friend, enemy, apparent friend or enemy who is actually the reverse) and more superficial details that reveal the character’s inner self (clothes, ideal pet, literacy or lack thereof, what attracts and repels, what they do when no one’s watching, etc.).
Once I have a sense of the characters, I haul out this amazing 900-page tome that I own about the minority of Ivan the Terrible (1533–47) and see what it has to say about the year in question. I also check the chronicle records for that year. I come up with a rough list of story events, real and fictional.
As soon as I start writing, the planning goes out the window. I research only as much as I need to answer specific questions. Every so often, I go back to the character questionnaires and story events and update them. But so long as I know more or less where I’m going, I let the story develop as seems best in the moment. Then I share it with my writers’ group, so they can point out the holes and frayed edges, and I revise as needed.
Tell me a bit about your next book. And will we see Juliana again?
We will see Juliana again, but not in the next book. Song of the Shaman follows Grusha, another character from the Legends series. She’s a single mother living on the steppe in a Tatar horde, although she’s Russian. So she’s an immigrant, in a sense, with a six-year-old son who can speak her language but otherwise neither knows nor cares where she comes from. And he’s reaching the age when, in this traditional society, he needs a man in his life to train him as a warrior. So Grusha has to juggle his needs and her own. Her novel will come out next February.
I’m in the early stages of writing the third novel in the series, and Juliana and Felix have already horned their way into chapter 4. I also anticipate a big wedding in Songs 5, where everyone from the earlier books will show up.
Thanks so much for these questions and for giving me a chance to talk about my work!
And if you’d like to learn more about these and other topics concerning Song of the Siren, its characters, its predecessor novels, and the historical world in which it’s set, check out this transcript and interview link on the Literary Hub, “Spying on Diplomats through the Big Red Kremlin Walls.”
Images: Andrei Riabushkin, The Tsar Meets with His Boyars (1893), public domain via Wikimedia Commons; iClipart.com 000679-0007-000085 (my image of Felix), purchased by subscription; ad © C. P. Lesley, using public domain art.