Author Interview: Caitlin Sangster

SP: Hi Caitlin! Welcome back to the Spinning Pen! Before we get into book stuff, we’d LOVE to know a bit about you and your writing journey! Where did this all start for you? What has your writing journey been like? What other books have you written?

CS: I’ve been writing since I was in middle school, though back then it was more like advanced plagiarism, since I would just rewrite stories I really liked, only badly (Alanna the Lioness, anyone?). I never considered writing stories as a thing I could do in a professional capacity, since it seemed like writing in school was focused on really boring stuff I wasn’t interested in, and all the books I read were so, so perfect, it didn’t seem like actual humans could write them.

But then after I’d already graduated from college, my sister got a book deal and it suddenly clicked in my mind that people write books and that I could potentially be one of those people. I had just read The Hunger Games series and immediately began writing a YA dystopia, which I eventually got agented and sold to Simon and Schuster, which became my first published books, the Last Star Burning series. While I was writing those, I had a secret backburner middle grade project I’d work on between deadlines called A Baker’s Guide to Robber Pie because my first love in books has always been fantasy and I couldn’t not try to write fantasy even if I went dystopia first.

SP: Can you tell us about your latest book, She Who Rides the Storm? How long did it take you to write it and how did this story come about? We want all the deets!

CS: She Who Rides the Storm is a story about four characters who are trying to steal a sword from an ancient evil shapeshifter tomb—an archeologist who is pretty sure it’s shapeshifter powers will heal the wasting sickness killing them, a thief who believes the sword will lead her to the man who murdered her brother (so she can murder him back!), her partner, who just wants the ghost of his sister to stop haunting him, and a gods-touched warrior who wishes gods would keep their hands (and their magic!) to themselves.

I came up with this idea a very long time ago because of a dream. I have really weird, vivid dreams sometimes, and this one was about a girl with plant magic, and there were witches, and I was being chased down a very lonely freeway…I still have the document I typed out after I woke up, which is all in fragmented sentences and orphan paragraphs, with lots of question marks. Those question marks turned into this twisty Venice-inspired city with boats instead of roads and gods that mark people with magic whether they want it or not, and fantasy archeology (I LIVED for the A Crocodile on the Sandbank series when I was younger!).

After finishing the last book in the Last Star Burning series, which had multiple POVs I swore I would never do more than two again, so obviously I went for four in She Who Rides the Storm. It took me about a year to write, about six months of which was during the pandemic, so it felt much, much longer. The character arcs at the center of each POV are all very, very close to my heart and took a few chunks of me with them as I wrote.

SP: What was your favorite part about writing this book? Which character surprised you most?

CS: The thing I love about writing in general is trying to invoke a specific feeling in my readers. Scenes from all my stories come from me feeling something very deeply in a moment or being made to feel it when I listen to someone else’s story, then wanting to be able to express that feeling in such a way that my reader will be able to feel it too. So much of reading and writing is inherently empathetic—we can feel the way the characters feel, which is why books can be so powerful.

While I was writing She Who Rides the Storm I listened to this episode of Snap Judgement (a podcast which is awesome btw) about a man who had been struck by lightning. After he recovered, he was terrified at the idea of being caught out in a storm ever again and his whole life changed to accommodate this fear. He decided one day he didn’t want to be afraid anymore and went to some outdoor event, a concert I think? And a storm started brewing.

There’s a recording of him hiding in his car as the rain starts to fall, where he’s just begging the heavens to stop coming after him until it’s raining so hard you can’t hear him talking anymore. It really touched me, this…lack of control in the face of something so much larger than he ever could be. Something that didn’t even know he existed, a force that was destroying him without knowing or caring. I really wanted to capture that feeling in a scene in this book, and while I don’t know if I succeeded, I loved trying! There are scenes throughout the book that are trying to accomplish the same thing—to evoke a specific feeling.

As for surprises, I think Mateo surprised me most as a character. He’s battling a disease that has no cure, his only hope is to find magic that is banned, and if anyone figures out what he and his father are doing, they’ll both be killed. He’s the weakest character physically—no swords or bows or arrows for this kid, he can hardly lift a shovel. But he came out swinging in other ways, which was really fun to figure out in a genre where so many main characters solve their problems with their fists.

SP: What was the hardest part about writing this book?

CS: Oh gosh. Four full and satisfying character arcs that inherently depended on one another was really exciting to try to contain in one book. I’m much more character-focused rather than plot-focused, and trying to hold four voices in my head was definitely a challenge. This is why authors get so many chances to rewrite. I can’t hold it all in my head at once. Lia was probably the most challenging because her story arc is so fragile and nuanced that I had to go over each word very carefully.

SP: Launching during COVID 19 must be an interesting experience. In which ways have you seen positive things come of it?

CS: I launched right in the middle of the Delta surge so there were events in some places and lockdowns in others…I had to think really hard about how to get my book out there when in a lot places people were still staying home. I think a lot of people turned to reading during COVID-19 but they turned to their favorites, the authors they already knew well, and I’m new enough (especially launching into a whole new genre!) that I wasn’t going to be on any of those lists. It forced me to be really creative and to come up with things I never would have otherwise.

SP: How involved are you in marketing your book? What have you seen work really well and what hasn’t?

CS: So, I’m a midlist author, my publisher is awesome, and I love them, but they aren’t pushing my book like they are their big names. I remember the week my book launched, my editor sent me a rundown of all the places She Who Rides the Storm had appeared in the media as a sort of “look how much we’re pushing this book!” sort of a thing, and I had to laugh because they were almost all reviews, interviews, posts, etc. that I had set up without any help.

The things that work best in my opinion are always going to be getting in front of readers in person if you can—hand-selling your book at conferences, speaking about topics that will point conference goers toward your book rather than directly selling it to them or only hitting writer panels (though I have fun doing writing-focused stuff too!), panels, bookstore events, school events where your book is right there waiting to be purchased.

Next best would be signed books or bookplates at stores—signed books were a lot scarcer during the pandemic since authors weren’t doing events, so I called hundreds of independent bookstores throughout the US and sent them signed bookplates. Signed books get put out where people can see them better without your publisher having to purchase prime placement in a store, and people like signed books, so they’re more likely to purchase them.

I think authors get hung up on marketing in ways that don’t work—it turns into a quantity thing rather than focusing on giving readers direct opportunity and motivation to buy your book or check it out from the library.

When I tried to market my first series, I was all flail and no follow through. I tried to be more thoughtful about it this time and ended up skipping most virtual events (because I don’t think they result in sales unless the bookstore is prominently featuring signed copies of your book in store or offering some incentive to purchase the book through the event), didn’t prioritize blog posts or online interviews (even though they are lovely, and do help! Haha. Awkward.), and tried to focus on things I would be able to actively count sales from, or that would put me in front of a much bigger audience than my own Instagram following. When I did special things like pre-order incentives, I did it through specific stores that would help me promote it instead of just hoping people would notice online.

I’m not a business minded person naturally (hello! I write books about magic!) but it was fun to be kind of creative in thinking about what motivates people to buy books, then trying to do those things.

Nothing can really replace a publisher pushing your books towards indie and chain bookstore buying agents, or the reach and funds they have, but there are little things you can do to help. Just make sure they count.

SP: Sadly, we’re running out of time here. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

CS: Read a lot, and not only in the genres you write. Read and listen to non-fiction. Write a lot. Don’t be worried if your work isn’t perfect the first time. Get your story down in all its terrible glory, then revise it until its good.

SP: Ok, we’re almost done and it’s time for the lightening round! Early bird or night owl?

CS: Both! I don’t sleep.

SP: Most obscure hobby?

CS: Ballroom dancing!

SP: Word you can never spell? This may be a trick question.

CS: I would have to spell it! Concience. Conscience!

SP: Haha! We’re not even sure what you’re trying to spell… 😛 Worst job?

CS: Sales floor compliance agent.

SP: Alright, time’s up! We’re so sad to see you go! Womp. Womp. BUT…there’s way more where this came from. Where can we go to read more from you?

CS: Visit my website, my newsletter is a good place to go if you want to keep up with what I’m up to, or you can come visit me on Instagram: @caitsangster.

SP: Thanks so much for your time Caitlin! It was lovely chatting with you. 🙂

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