Interview by Piranha T.
Rosaria Munda is the author of the young adult fantasy novels Fireborne and its sequel, Flamefall (which was released last month), the first two books in the Aurelian Cycle. We loved Fireborne for its intricate world-building, strong character arcs, and unexpec-ted twists--Flamefall is next on our to-read list! We were thrilled to interview Rosaria Munda about Fireborne for this month’s feature.
Rapunzel Reads: Fireborne is full of twists on clichés and classic plotlines. Did these come about as the story progressed, or were some of them in your mind initially as you wrote?
Rosaria Munda: Lee’s inversion of the deposed aristocrat was probably the main reason I wrote the book, so it was there from the start. Other things came later.
RR: I read on your website that you initially had another point of view in Fireborne. How did the process of editing out that character change the way you told the story?
RM: Originally Duck was a POV character, but it didn’t work because he didn’t have a story
Author photo credit:
Brooke Amber Photography 2019
RR: Do you have any tips for an aspiring writer?
RM: Read a lot, and read widely. Nonfiction is often the best inspiration of all.
RR: Your characters feel very natural and distinct, with multiple layers, and not all just good or just bad. (I particularly loved Power.) How did you develop them?
RM: Thank you, and I’m glad you love Power! I will say, characters that feel layered were built just like that—in layers. Originally, Power was much nastier (really not a nice guy at all, rather irredeemable) and my editor asked me to make him “viable.” I layered in the redeeming qualities and added training sequences with him and Annie, which were not in the original drafts and did a lot for her arc towards independence, too.
RR: Both Annie and Lee have exceptionally strong emotional arcs, some of the best I’ve read in fantasy novels. What were the challenges of crafting them?
RM: Thank you again. Annie was the hardest—I had a really hard time convincing myself (let alone her!) that she could compete with Lee! It took, again, layers. Drafts upon drafts. I think that is why there is a feeling of depth to it. A lot of her realizations about her own strengths were realizations I had to make about her (and maybe female heroines in general) myself, and they took years to arrive at.
Lee was pretty set—I knew what I wanted him to be—the trick was actually making him a bit more tempted and flawed than he originally was. In early drafts, Julia only appeared at the end, with no previous correspondence. Defecting wasn’t an ongoing temptation, Lee just said no and that was it. Layering in the temptation from the start gave him depth.
RR: What books inspired you when you were growing up?
RM: I was a big fan of the classic big three—HP, LOTR, and Narnia—but one other I’ll mention that I think was hugely influential was The Once and Future King by T.H. White, which was the first book I’d ever read that really combined a political vision with intimate psychological portraits in a fantasy setting. I’ve heard TOAFK described as the “what fantasy could have been” if it had become the template instead of LOTR, which published around the same time.
RR: Fireborne is an interesting combination of dystopian and fantasy which doesn’t fall into the boxes of either genre. What inspired it?
RM: So many things inspired Fireborne! I tend to come up with “one” story idea at a time, but that one story is really a compilation of a lot of different story ideas collected over a few years. As Neil Gaiman once said, “stories come from confluence.” Travelling abroad, studying political theory and the classics, thinking about tropes I liked or wanted to play with… all of these went into the pot.
RR: What were the challenges of writing it?
RM: The biggest challenge was probably the experience of revising it with my editor. We blew it apart… several times. Very little of the original draft remains. Very little of the middle drafts remain. The final work was so much better than anything I had written before it. But it was exhausting and scary to build something, and tear it apart, and build it again repeatedly.
RR: What was your favorite part of writing Fireborne?
RM: My favorite part of writing Fireborne was probably writing the Holbin Hill chapter—which perhaps makes me sound like a terrible person. But it was the keystone I’d been building towards and when the time came to write it, it poured out.
Rosaria Munda also answered some of our comments about the twists throughout the book, and how she uses clichés in an interesting way. If you haven’t yet read Fireborne, spoiler alert!
RR: Lee has an unusual arc for a character with relatives who are the ‘villains’. Most characters in this position either join the antagonistic group or at least harbor some loyalty towards them, while Lee is willing to destroy all bonds towards them and fully support the new regime.
RM: Right, and very well put. I remember I had this idea—very vivid and insistent—that I wanted a main character forced to do the opposite of avenge his family. I think revolution/deposition stories tend to paint the rulers in one of two lights—either as evil that need to be overthrown (think Coriolanus Snow in Hunger Games, or countless other dystopian tyrants) or as rightful rulers that need to be returned to the throne (think Aragorn, Paul Atreides from Dune, or Anastasia Romanov as she is depicted in popular imagination). It was always one or the other, but in reality I think the history of deposed rulers is a mixed bag of legitimate popular grievance, and real personal tragedy for the deposed family. I wanted Lee to be forced to see both sides of that—through Annie, a former whom he can’t help relating to, and when you relate to someone, you humanize them. I liked the idea of forcing someone to humanize the other through shared trauma.
RR: I also noticed just as Lee sympathizes with the opposing side, Julia expresses understanding towards Atreus's regime. I’ve seen this before with the protagonist but rarely with the antagonist, which was really interesting.
RM: You make a good point here. Truth be told I never thought of Julia as the antagonist. And I think it is important, unless you’re writing about metaphysical villains like Sauron, to try not to think of antagonists as antagonists. She was a beloved family member who wanted different things and had different values. I have people like this in my own life—I think we all do—and just because we disagree with them, doesn’t mean they don’t have nuance to their beliefs or the ability to see the good in our values, too.
I will add—she gets even more complicated—even more evil, and more human—in Flamefall, where we meet her friends and family who have to reckon with what happened at the end of Fireborne. The new POV is from her surviving lover, whose history with her is very complicated.
RR: It feels as though Atreus's rebellion was that of a 'classic' dystopian novel, standing up to an unfair, blood-driven regime, overthrowing the old lords, and making something better for 'all' people. This was the idea, but clearly in Fireborne it isn't so simple, and Atreus's government is different, but not necessarily better.
RM: Right. I think YA dystopian novels specifically have a fascination with revolution—for good reason, they’re very exciting and inherently youthful—but I wanted to set the story in the aftermath for the simple reason that I find the aftermath of revolution even more interesting! I lived in many places marked by legacies of Revolution, particularly Paris and Beijing, and thinking about who benefited, and who lost everything, and what propaganda controlled what narratives and what stories were celebrated or erased—these were the things that led me to Fireborne. “Collections” are a tacit nod to Mao’s collectivization efforts, which went drastically and infamously badly and led to mass famine.
RR: Atreus is also a particularly interesting character!
RM: Yes. I think of Atreus as a sort of Robespierre figure—too much of an ideological purist for his own good. You will see more of that in Flamefall.