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JJ Barnes The Table Read

Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed author Angela Armstrong about her writing career, her inspiration and motivation, and her new book, The Unflinching Ash.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

Before writing books, I studied English and Film, taught full-time in schools, owned an art gallery, and reviewed books for trade publishers. I live with my husband Haki in Northland, New Zealand, where I devote my non-writing hours to home-schooling three chatty daughters who have inherited a fierce love of words from their mother.

Angela Armstrong, The Unflinching Ash, Author Interview on The Table Read

When did you first WANT to write a book?

My earliest memories feature me quarto folding paper and maneuvering a long-armed stapler to secure them together. I have no memory of a time when I didn’t intend to produce books.

When did you take a step to start writing?

I first began sharing my writing in adulthood as a blogger. In time, I was approached by Walker, Hachette, and others to review books, then interview authors. It was after a particularly candid interview with Laini Taylor that I made a decision I needed to take active steps towards writing my first manuscript.

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

About 2 years.

How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?

Closer to 4 years.

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Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write The Unflinching Ash?

After attending an international magic show with my three daughters, their heads were spinning as they marvelled at all that this male magician had done.  Mine ached with all the woman had done that they had not seen.

I knew I wanted to be part of creating a new narrative.

I could not believe male dominance in magic was so pronounced, still. I began wondering what a world like ours would look like, if things had begun to change sooner.  I began thinking about what it would have been like if a gutsy female illusionist had succeeded in making her way long ago…and then my thoughts snagged on how that story would be told if such ambition was born during a time of mass hysteria.

So many stories about witches end with women tortured, trialled or straight-way executed because they did something entirely reasonable although perhaps thought different; they provided contraception to others, had a way with animals, or consumed herbs someone thought unseemly, met together unconventionally, or most dispassionately, experienced a seizure.  These stories were not always of women, but mostly so.

I wanted the fight to be won there, at the front line.

Although Houdini was to rise to prominence later, magic and illusions had been thriving around the world for centuries – with varied reception.

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What was clear to me was that no female magician in any era has ever risen to distinction comparable to the bevy of male magicians who are household names.  I’m sure you’ve heard of Harry Houdini, Penn and Teller, David Copperfield, David Blaine, and Siegfried and Roy.  Can you name one female magician?  If I gave names to you, would they resound with matching familiarity?  What about Dorothy Dietrich, Misty Lee, Kristen Johnson, Ning Cai, Debbie Leifer, Eusapia Palladino, Frances Willard, Ariann Black, Mariko Itakura, Faye Presto, or Lisa Menna? 

Angela Armstrong, The Unflinching Ash, Author Interview on The Table Read

So in Mórlough we find an alternative world and history where I imagined a war was won for women – and for anyone who is different or little understood – like those wars we are still fighting now; a war that might have led to a different world than ours, where talented, untamed, mystical women can be respected and remembered with equal distinction. 

What were your biggest challenges with writing The Unflinching Ash?

I was working with an editor from one of the houses mentioned earlier when she was made redundant in a restructure. Then I was working with a premier agent when the Bologna Book Fair she was slated to attend was cancelled. Finally, I was readying myself for a house move and new routines, primed to polish the manuscript, when New Zealand’s lockdown resulted in our family becoming displaced, then nomads. In the past 18 months, we have moved 38 times, from house-sit to house-sit, since our first home remained occupied with its owners locked in, and then when we decided to build instead, our project was held up due to skill and supply shortages. We’re still moving from place to place. Writing while constantly moving isn’t easy.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?

Ash is unapologetically ambitious and visited me whole, demanding she be written.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?

There’s more than one person in opposition to Ash and her quest to rightfully perform as a woman. Some chapters are told from the perspective of a certain zealot, Odell.  Odell sincerely believes Ash is in need saving. I grew up in a conservative community but have since reframed my beliefs.  Odell is born from the parts of faith that bristle, for me.

What is the inciting incident of The Unflinching Ash?

Just when Ash thinks she has a good handle on her competition, a peregrine illusionist joins the Mystic circuit.

What is the main conflict of The Unflinching Ash?

Church versus Progress.  Ash is winning over crowds at night but evading capture by day, because the basilica is calling her performances heresy.

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Did you plot The Unflinching Ash in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?

I prepared a full outline for my book, but after feedback from my editor, I did a serious restructure. I’m definitely a plotter though.

Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Unflinching Ash need?

I worked with a trade publishing editor first. Then I worked with independent editors. The book went through 15 rounds of revisions with four editors in each round.

What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?

Begin.  The most important part is to start writing.

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Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

House-sitting will play a part in the next book.

And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

I’m satisfied that Ash and this story are being shared. It’s definitely worth the effort to see things through… but I’ll always be looking to what’s next.

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