Monday, June 25, 2012

The Universal Mirror--Interview and Review with Gwen Perkins

Today we have the fabulous Gwen Perkins visiting with us. She has written a fantasy novel called The Universal Mirror which was published by Hydra Publications. Ms. Perkins is sharing some of the secrets she uses when creating a novel.

Mary Ann: Hi Gwen! Thanks for being with us on All Things Writing. I really enjoyed your book The Universal Mirror and look forward to its sequel, The Jealousy Glass. Let's chat about the writing process!

You've created this complex and unique world of magic in The Universal Mirror. How did you go about doing this? What do you think about as a writer when you are creating a location like Cercia where certain rules seem to apply?

Gwen: One of the governing rules for me in building the world of Cercia was this: "Magic has consequence."  That's the simple basic tenet but it became much more complex as I began to explore it. 

The magic system in Cercia is a little different from what I've observed in many fantasy novels.  In Cercia, magicians draw their magic from the earth using their bodies as a conduit.  While you don't see it in The Universal Mirror, in the sequel, where two of the magicians travel to the nation of Anjdur, you learn that other countries don't possess magic that has nearly the strength of the Cercians'.  This is because the Anjduri have literally scorched their earth, causing so much damage to their environment that it becomes difficult to draw energy into human beings.  As a result, that culture's magic have evolved.  (This is made more explicit in later books.)  That's the literal consequence of using magic.

However, there are also social and political consequences to the use of magic.  In Cercia, there is a series of laws called the Heresies which govern how magicians are allowed to utilize this force.  Is it because of a desire to protect the land?  Not so much as it is because the government understands how dangerous it would be to allow its people to wield power outside of its supervision.  This isn't only because of a perception that people would hurt one another—it's also to preserve those secrets that keep the government in power.

I liked Catharine a lot and loved the interactions between her and Quentin. Their dialogue felt so real. Do you have any tips on creating believable dialogue?

To be honest, just listen to people.  I listen to people all the time and try to note their small gestures and interactions. 

Catharine and Quentin were difficult to write because they are a couple in crisis—that's not an easy thing to capture, particularly because it involves examining something that I think all of us find painful.  I can't say that I based them on any one couple that I know.  I tend to shy away from doing that.  But there are elements of a lot of faltering relationships that I've seen or been a part of that slipped into their interactions.  The hardest thing, I think, was in juggling the fact that these are two people who do love one another.  It's just that they can't get past their own issues to allow those feelings to shine through.

 I know that you are hard at work on The Jealousy Glass. Did you find it easier or harder to slip back into the world of magic?

It's very easy to return to Cercia.  I actually felt that The Jealousy Glass wrote itself in a lot of ways.  I hadn't intended there to be a sequel to Mirror initially but I received so many emails and questions about what happened next that the story started weaving itself.  I've since realized that there's a lot more to tell and I'm very happy to be telling it.  Future books dive deeper into the history of Cercia as well as explore the revolution that was started at the end of the first book.

How did you hook up with Hydra Publications?

It's kind of odd, perhaps, but I hooked up with them because I read one of their novels, Anon by Peter Giglio.  I'd been looking around for a small press because I wanted to be published by someone who was willing to teach me and show me the ropes the first time out.  I didn't actually read Anon with that in mind but I enjoyed the novel so much that I googled the press.  On a bit of a whim, I sent Hydra the novel and got a great response.  Subsequent emails back and forth convinced me that this was the press to work with and it was the kind of personal relationship that I wanted to have with a publisher.  I didn't want a distant overseer of my work—what I wanted was someone that I could really talk to about concerns and ideas and that's exactly what I got. 

Working with Hydra is like being part of a wonderful family.  I talk to my fellow authors and publishers every day and they offer support and encouragement both about writing and about my personal life.  What a wonderful experience it's been.

Okay, I have to ask because we writers are nosy people (or maybe that's just me!), but do you have an agent? If not, what's your take on that for writers? Should we or shouldn't we have one?

I don't have an agent.  That's not to say that I won't in future but it wasn't where I decided to go this first time.  In terms of what my take is?  That really depends on what your goals with publishing are.  I wanted to go small press and in that case, I don't feel that an agent is necessary (though I would recommend research and looking over contracts carefully for any writer).  If I'd decided to go Big 6, I would have had to have one, I believe. 

Personally, I don't think there's any one path for an author.  We're all different, all of our books are different from one another.  The key thing is to make the choice that's right for you. 

What do you think was the most challenging part of writing The Universal Mirror?

Starting it.  I have great trouble with beginning stories—unlike many writers, my favorite part is the middle.  I struggle with opening a piece and then I hate to see it end.  (One of the best things about writing a series!) 

I knew when I began Mirror that I wanted to open it with a scene that I wrote years before I actually started the novel—two men digging a grave—but deciding what followed after was difficult.  A couple of the chapters ended up being rearranged in the final version, actually, because of that.

What have you learned about writing since being published? Is there anything you would do differently?

I've learned to love my bad reviews or at least, the critical ones.  I think carefully about what people've said about the book and it definitely has influenced how I've written the second novel. 

I've also learned, however, that not every book is for every reader. I don't think authors should feel bad if not all audiences enjoy their book.  One wouldn't expect every James Joyce fan to enjoy Stephen King—it's completely unreasonable to think that you can write a "one size fits all" book.  I certainly wouldn't want to.

One of the things that I would do differently if I was to write Mirror again would be to slow down a little and put more exposition in the story.  As a reader, I dislike large chunks of history but I've learned that there are other ways to go about it.  My natural instinct is to jump from action scene to action scene without allowing much space for characters to talk.  While The Jealousy Glass is fairly action-driven, I've tried very hard (with the help of some wonderful beta readers) to slow myself down at points.  It's a better novel for that.

Review of The Universal Mirror

Magic. Man, do I love some magic in my stories! A lot of my summer reading list is made up of books that have some sort of paranormal, magical hoopla to them, as a matter of fact.  That being said though, I don't actually consider myself much of a straight high fantasy reader. It's just not one of those genres that I've ever really gotten in to.

That's why I was so excited to read Gwen Perkins book, The Universal Mirror. If you read the above interview, you know that Ms. Perkins has created a complex world where magic is drawn from the earth and there are definite rules that must be followed when practicing it. Here is the synopsis from the book cover:

On the island of Cercia, the gods are dead, killed by their followers and replaced with the study of magic. Magicians are forbidden to leave their homeland. Laws bind these men that prevent them from casting spells on the living--whether to harm or to heal.

Quentin, a young nobleman, challenges these laws out of love for his wife. His best friend, Asahel, defies authority at his side, unaware that the search for this lost magic will bring them both to the edge of reason, threatening their very souls. The Universal Mirror shows how far two men are willing to go for the sake of knowledge and what they will destroy to obtain it.

I found this to be a very character driven novel.  The author spends a lot of time developing each character, really giving the reader a strong sense of who they are and what their purpose is.  Quentin has the money and power (due to his marriage to Catherine), and Asahel is sort of the poor church mouse that most people in upper society won't acknowledge. The friendship between these two men is interesting to watch unfold and there were times where I wasn't sure if I really liked Quentin--though I did love watching him interact with his wife, Catherine. She may not be the prettiest gal on the block due to a previous illness that left her scarred, but Quentin is in love with her and their relationship was one of the things I found compelling in the novel.

Without giving too much away, what I really discovered about this book is that yes, it is about magic and what happens when you abuse it, but it's really about friendship and what people will do to keep it. As I said, this is a character driven story, so I did feel at times the action was a little slow, particularly at the beginning. However, the second part of this story really pushed things into overdrive and made me look forward to the sequel, The Jealousy Glass.

I'm hoping Ms. Perkins will come back and talk to us more in the fall when the second book comes out! Below are the purchase links, as well as, links to learn more about Gwen!

Author links:


  1. Thanks for being with us today, Gwen. I really enjoyed your book, but I liked learning about how you create worlds. Good stuff!

  2. Thank you for having me, Mary Ann! This was a fantastic interview and I'll definitely look forward to chatting more with you this fall. :)

  3. Gwen Perkins is my favorite indie fantasy writer. Thanks for the interview and review.

  4. Jason, I think she's pretty rockin!