Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors, talking less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. That way, even if you haven’t read the author’s work, you can enjoy the interview just fine. Today, please welcome S.M. Reine. You can learn more about her on Twitter and her website.
Grab the Lapels: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?
S.M. Reine: As a child, I had a magical Five A’s that I would say I wanted to be: archaeologist, astronomer, astronaut, artist, and author. The first of those fell off the list when I realized most archaeologists have nothing to do with dinosaurs or prehistoric ruins. Astronomy was a nice hobby, but getting serious required equipment and I was poor. Anxiety knocked off becoming an astronaut (not to mention I am physically the equivalent of a condor on MDMA, as far as coordination goes). That left being an artist or author. I love both. But until fairly recently, being an artist was also inaccessible to me because of supply expenses.
Writing is something you can do when you have absolutely nothing but your imagination. I’ve always had a computer with a word processor. I’ve always had notebooks, pens, and terrible handwriting. I guess I ended up an author just because it was more accessible than everything else I love.
GTL: What was the first story you ever wrote about?
SMR: If you want a really deep dive, my first short story was called BATS!!!! and it was a preschool thing about a girl who got a bat for her birthday. It flew around inside her apartment. That was the whole story.
The first novel I finished was called Journey to Utopia. If you imagine the cast of Sailor Moon in Wheel of Time, then you’ve got that series. Also there were literally no men in that fantasy universe. I decided the gods said “nope, no more men” and then babies just appeared after that to propagate the human race. This was a creative decision based upon the fact I could not draw men. It has always been very important to me that I can draw my characters. Why learn to draw guys when guys can just…not exist? I have flourished into a hairy misandrist in my adulthood and I don’t think it could have ended up any other way.
GTL: What is your writing process like? Which do you favor, starting or revising — why?
SMR: The early parts are my favorite. I love world building. I love outlining. It all feels so magical, like falling in love. You don’t have to worry about things making sense. It doesn’t need to be in a consumable format that other people can understand. It’s just me, and this content I’m really excited about, and I can do anything I want with it. The opportunities are limitless! I tend to write the beginnings of books in a big love-struck rush.
Revision isn’t my favorite, but it’s satisfying in its own way. I deeply appreciate watching a book go from that slurry of id mentioned above into something tidier, technically superior, and polished. It’s the part where I get to take all that fun internal stuff and prepare it as an offering to receive external validation of my actions. But it’s not this exciting wilderness where books start out. The books become some so much better, objectively, but subjectively I’m in love with the mess and the potential and this one sentence that doesn’t make sense to anyone but me but is exactly the way I want it.
The beginning feels like pure art. The revision feels like negotiation between artist brain and rational brain. If you want to be an artist actually contributing to the culture—and especially if you want to be a writer for your job, as it is for me—you have to put out art that makes sense to people other than you. I don’t like the negotiation. The polish replaces personality. But I respect its necessity and I’m pretty good at doing it, so it feels great to accomplish.
GTL: Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?
SMR: So many! Thematically, I’m grappling with issues close to me, which are often trauma, substance abuse, and mental illness. Even for people who deal with these things, we all deal with them in different ways. We have different attitudes and experiences. The subset of people who will not find that exhaustive sit-down with trauma alienating, who also WANT to read it, and then want to read it in urban fantasy format… I’ve become very comfortable with the idea that my books aren’t for a lot of people. Luckily, the people they are “for” tend to stick good.
Because of the intense subject matter in my books, I often actually don’t recommend my books to people. I hope people will find them through recommendations from a friend who can help them navigate the content. They require a lot of trigger warnings. Even when I’m trying to write a book that is nice and pleasant! I sink easily into melancholy, and that depression is a black hole for some readers.
I also tend to write for myself, perhaps more so than some other writers in pulpier genres. All genres have a set of expected tropes that readers often don’t even know they expect. Urban fantasy, especially in recent years, has become somewhat of a “high churn” genre with lots of write-for-hire populating it with these very tropey books, which is totally cool, lots of readers are quite happy with those. But I can’t write like that! I’m mostly writing trope inversions because that’s what I like. It means you can go into a book of mine that is structurally just like a more market-facing urban fantasy (heroine in leather fights demons with a sword in a contemporary setting) and completely bounce off of it because I decided it would suit me best to turn all those ideas upside down.
There’s nothing technically wrong with either approach. Bringing the themes in close to my heart doesn’t just upend tropes, but personalizes the art to a degree that sometimes makes it less accessible to a broader population. I’m in my early thirties now, after a decade as a career author, and I don’t see that personalization as much of a weakness anymore. There are seven billion people on this planet. I can make it very personal and it can still find a home in readers’ hearts because a tiny subset of seven billion is a lot.
GTL: How do your friends and family respond to your writing?
SMR: I don’t have friends. Haha! I’m sort of kidding. I used to have friends I hung out with in reality, but my world has become incredibly narrow. My former friends were impressed with my career but not really interested in reading what I wrote. Publishing is a behemoth in my life so it was weird. In the long term, I don’t know how to relate to people on a personal level unless they can relate to me in my personal vocabulary of emotional metaphors (which is to say, know what has happened in my books, and how those events were informed by my reality). I guess this is another touch upon what I mentioned earlier — how books have to be editable to be read by others. Humans have to be able to filter themselves to common social experiences in order to maintain social networks. Unfortunately I’m good at editing and bad at filtering myself. That might be code for “I am an asshole.” Did you want me to reply to this interview like I’m in therapy? Because you’re getting replies like I’m in therapy.
Anyway, my family is very supportive. The folks who live with me (husband and sibling) read almost everything, although some of my projects are too intense for them. They’re so much nicer than I am.
GTL: Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?
SMR: You know that kid in high school who didn’t really sit down with any clique regularly, but floated around aimlessly? That was me. I do the same thing in writing. I have been blessed with a broad network of author-friends that touches all over the place but never really settles anywhere. I am the same transient gay nerd I was as a teenager.
That said, I’ve been vibing with the romance community a lot lately. They’re like the debate club filled with these gorgeous geniuses and I am plastered outside the window, panting breath-fog on the glass and leaving greasy imprints of my nose because I just want to be close to them but I am not truly One of Them. Romance authors are so smart. Someday I’ll join the debate club.
GTL: I’m on a quest to find books starring positive portrayals of fat women, and that’s how I found your work: Dana McIntyre. OMG, I love her. Why did you decide to include a fat heroine?
SMR: The quickest answer to this is that I write a big universe, and I have always aspired to reflect authentic diversity in the characters of that universe. Fat people exist. You might not know it looking at the covers on bookshelves in Walmart, but they do, and that is that.
Here’s the much longer answer. Dana flowed naturally out of the unusual project that is the Descentverse. I’ve written all across the timeline in that urban fantasy universe, but in especially great detail for 2-3 generations of character, and there are considerations like who has children and what characteristics they may inherit from previous generations. Before Dana hit the page as a vampire-slaying adult, her father was a close ally to one of my early heroines.
When writing fantasy books, you have to consider the balance of a party, much like in playing a tabletop game like Dungeons & Dragons. Even if you have a bunch of fighters around, they shouldn’t be the same kind of fighter. You need to build complimentary skills to be sure you can address whatever enemies pop up (or in my case, whatever the plot calls for). Lucas McIntyre was envisioned through a process of compare and contrast to another heroine, Elise. She’s lean, fast, restless, hawk-like. Lucas embodied a more bear-like energy. If Elise were the hard place, he would be the rock. He was always found in the same location, while Elise roved the world. He knew everyone and could get help for anything, while Elise was a loner. And so I also conceived of Lucas as being a physically large man, for his presence in the interconnected social network of demon hunters, for his security and solidity and sense of place. As Elise’s friend, when he made occasional appearances, he always felt safe in a way that others didn’t.
It made sense for Dana to inherit some of her father’s characteristics. I wanted her to also be a big bear-like figure. The more I ruminated on that, though, her physical size became less a visual metaphor for the energy she exerted, and more of a thought process like, “Why the hell haven’t I seen this before?” Lucas McIntyre was somewhat a trope inversion because he was this big, scary, biker-looking guy who represented Elise’s safe place and had a supportive social network. But transposing a lot of those same features to Dana made her subversive in a different way. She became the burly, brawny bear — a tank. She’s fat, and she’s also aggressively competent, defined by her brilliant strategic mind. She’s not a nice woman. Dana isn’t here for that.
As I invested more into adult Dana to figure out who she was, I just became really attached to the idea of writing one of my tough, badass, athletic heroines to be a fat woman. I was getting into weight lifting and Sarah Robles, the strongest woman in the world, is a fat woman. I started realizing my earlier biases about weight and fitness influenced the “lean and mean” attitude I’d given Elise. I realized Dana could be fit and powerful and fat. And that was a heady thing. I have long grappled with internalized fatmisia and an eating disorder, but writing Dana made me feel more powerful in my body.
Finally, I’m a member of the LGBTQ2I+ community, and there are a fair amount of women who are like Dana, without the vampires. I just hadn’t really seen that specific kind of woman given the attention, honor, and regard conferred upon action heroes. I simply thought some of them might be amused to see a reflection of self somewhere they haven’t before. I really hope that it’s not the last time.
Interested in reading more? Check out my review of Drawing Dead, the first Dana McIntyre book; my review of Death’s Hand, the first Descent Series book; and a review of the entire Descent Series. Thanks so much to S.M. Reine for participating in this edition of Meet the Writer!