Frankly, I’ve been extremely lucky with this project. My friend Malin James, who has been a wonderful pre-publication reader for me, has written AMAZING posts on the series. Check out the first here: “On Queer Marginalization: Lana Fox and Maddie Aflame!“. Also, Jacob Louder, my heartthrob spouse, editor and cover designer, has interviewed me below. He is one HELL of a great interviewer, as you’ll see if you read on….
1. I’m thinking about the Swallowing Mansion, how eerie it is when we first encounter it, but how, as we’ll read on in the books that follow in the Maddie Aflame! Series, it’s far more complex than what’s shown on its exterior. Have you ever been to a house or a place that made you think, “Something’s not right here”?
Yes! Many times, actually. The building that swallows people in The Swallowing Mansion is, in terms of its physical make-up, very loosely based on a boarding school I attended when I was a kid. There were ghosts there (just ask Oleander Plume!) and the whole place was just strangely unsettling. But I’ll also mention an apartment I visited when I was looking for somewhere to live in the Boston area. When I walked in, the whole place felt desperate, as if someone had bled all the goodness from the air. It gave me a feeling in the middle of my chest that was heavy and sickly. I’ll never forget that place.
2. What inspired the dark, hate-filled, anti-queer political mood found in the series?
Stories of LGTBQ folks who have been attacked and/or live in perpetual fear of attack in Russia had a powerful effect on me earlier this year — and they still do. (Read a heartbreaking example here.) I’ve spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like to be queer in Russia and other anti-queer places. Such fear. Such terror. Such pain. When I was first envisioning Maddie Aflame!, I also read a truly moving article about a trans woman called Alena who lives in Georgia and is unable to come out to friends and family because of the threat of violence against her. As the article explains, Alena has to live her truth inside of herself. Such bravery is nothing short of heroic.
This all made me want to write about brave, loving queer people living in a place where being LGTBQ was dangerous. But in the world I’ve written, the characters have each other — they have community, strength in numbers, and systems that support their outness. This is what long to gift all of us who are different. Friendship, community, heart-driven power.
On a lighter note, I was also inspired by Harry Potter! I adore J. K. Rowling’s series, but I was always a little sad that I only knew Dumbledore was queer after J. K. Rowling discussed it. I love the darkness of Rowling’s world and the tremendous heart of its central characters. Frankly, where Harry Potter centers around wizard identity, I was inspired to write a fantasy series that had similarly heartfelt heroics and was centered around queer identity. What if a giant Mansion suddenly disappeared then started luring queer folks into its invisible depths? What if it sought to experiment on queer identities? To find out what makes queer folks so strong?
I don’t recommend Maddie Aflame! to everyone. It is set in a place that is as dark as Voldemort. But at its core are polyamorous, queer heroes who create magic out of sex and heart, and save the whole damn world.
3. You explore chronic illness through Maddie’s Combustion Syndrome, and mental illness through Raj’s schizophrenia. Was it important to you to show characters who have to manage pain—and the shame sometimes associated with it—strive when faced with such peril?
Yes! It absolutely was! I’ve been chronically ill myself for many years and I know that, though it has been a very hard road, it is one that has taught me how strong I am — even when I feel weak beyond description. I know this isn’t everyone’s experience and I truly honor that, but I wanted to show Maddie and Raj as powerful beings who have learned a great deal from their own painful journeys, and are more than capable of saving the world when they join together as one. What’s more, having been a carer for someone close who has schizophrenia, it was important to me to show a schizophrenic character with a deep heart and exceptional vision, who is more than capable of saving lives. I am very, very fond of Raj. And Maddie too, of course.
4. I love vapor tech! You know, Heaven’s Rain and Bubblemail, so here comes another “inspirations” question: how in god’s name did you come up with this stuff?
Thank you! Short answer? I have no idea!
For those who don’t yet know about vapor tech, the series is peopled by ghosts who have appeared in England suddenly and are simply wandering through cities and houses, quite lost as to why they arrived. These ghosts have taught scientists a great deal about the vapors they are made of. When a ghost speaks to you, you hear their words in your head, and that’s because the communication is psychic. It makes sense, then, that scientists would create “vapor tech”, including bubblemail (a kind of spoken text message transmitted via a bubble) and Heaven’s Rain (a little disc that produces rain when you envision water clearly).
Bubblemail came to me perhaps because I love bubbles. Every year, on the anniversary of my father’s death, I blow bubbles in the back yard in his honor. As a symbol, bubbles capture Dad’s boundless sense of fun and his ability to laugh. But I also like to think that his spirit is out there catching all my miraculous, bubble-shaped messages. Each one says, “I love you. Never stop punning!”
I suppose Heaven’s Rain was just where I imagine Apple would go if they suddenly got hold of vapor tech. It was a gift I wanted to give Maddie — her fires are so hard and she deserves instant showers.
5. What impresses me most about Maddie Aflame! is the way you manage to create a story that spans so many literary genres: fantasy, dystopia, erotica, young adult/new adult, romance, and, to a lesser degree, depending on the reader, horror. Have you always wanted to write a series that accomplishes so much, that literally has something for everyone?
That’s a really great — and super-kind — question! I’m not sure. What I have wanted to do is to marry YA and erotica! I feel like Maddie Aflame! is the YA series I always wanted to write, but it contains loads of hot sex that bonds the characters and creates powerful magic. That’s really where I wanted to go. I thought, “What if we took the YA of writers like J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman and allowed their characters to have lots of profound sex?” I wanted to write a series that would be gripping YA if you took the sex out, yet would lose something precious by so doing. The mixture of YA type genres with erotica also speaks to the kind of fiction I wish I’d been able to find as a kid. That’s one of the many reasons why I was so honored when the amazing Malin James wrote that Maddie Aflame! was “a story that I would hand to anyone, including older teens.”
6. Lastly, let’s talk about spirituality. Aud is a talented and intuitive tarot card reader, the anti-mansion queer crew uses crystals in their homes to deflect the mansion’s dangerous thrall, and Maddie speaks with her mother’s spirit for timely tips and advice about how to defeat the mansion. What are your spiritual beliefs, and have they saved you during difficult times?
I believe absolutely and deeply in love. In fact, I’ll capitalize that, and call it Love. I don’t just mean easy Love either. I mean the stuff that loves the self as deeply as it loves others. I mean the stuff that learns to say “no” because the heart’s honest truth is the opposite of destruction. I mean the love that sits down and writes what it believes in without knowing if anyone will read it. I mean the love that stands up when it is/we are attacked and says, “You can’t take me away from me” or “You can’t take them away from them” or “You can’t take us away from us” and then puts on its boxing gloves. But I equally mean the love that gets you through situations that leave you unable to stand up or do anything but survive.
I’ve been through some really hard shit, like many of us have. And I’ve always found the answer lies in love. But I had to learn that love needs to travel inwards towards me, not only out towards others.
Now, I also do tarot readings! (They aren’t as exciting as Aud’s because I have no “magical” cards, but I love ’em, all the same.) Plus I have had experiences with ghosts. Once, I wept, believing I was so alone in life, and dried my eyes suddenly when my iTunes library switched itself on and played Frank Sinatra’s Me and My Shadow — the ultimate in “you are not alone” songs (and also one of my dead father’s faves!). The computer was actually in another room at the time! How can you not believe in the supernatural after that?
I was also once told by a palm reader that I would have a huge amount of children. Hasn’t happened yet. Everything else they told me came true. But much as I like kids, I don’t want to have my own. And neither does Jacob, so that’s very much the end of that! Perhaps I’m going to open a dog rescue center, hm? We shall wait and see….
Jacob, thank you so much for interviewing me! And readers, thanks so much for reading! I appreciate it so much. I couldn’t be prouder to be releasing The Swallowing Mansion, Book One of Maddie Aflame!