In a slightly futuristic dystopia, a teenage girl discovers she’s an empath and that she is the linchpin between the physical world and the supernatural. Author Adele T. Cawley shares how her paranormal fantasy, Demon Reaper, came about and why it’s a genre with timeless themes of independence, individuation and rebellion that resonate with today’s YA readership.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: How and when did your journey as a writer begin?
A: Professionally, I’d have to say it began by taking a huge leap of faith investing in a collaborative publishing course, and forcing myself not to give up on my dream. However, my journey as a writer truly began when I learned to write words, at about age five. I can’t remember a time in my life I haven’t loved the power of the written word, and particularly, the emotions words can invoke.
Q: Were you a voracious reader growing up? What books might we have found on the nightstand of your adolescent self? Your teenage self?
A: I was a voracious reader growing up at times, and at other times it was hard to find interest in any book at all. I call the voracious spells “reading jags” because they are similar to food jags toddlers go through when they obsess over one or two foods and can’t seem to eat enough of them. (My four-year-old is currently going through a food jag with peanut butter and insists on eating it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.) Sometimes I get this way with books, and I can’t inhale them fast enough.
As an adolescent I loved the Childhood of Famous Americans book series, which prompted a lifelong love of historical fiction. I also loved the Hardy Boys mystery books, and I read every book my school library carried when I was in the 4th and 5th grades. These books primed me for my love of mysteries, and when I got a little older I read several Sherlock Holmes stories. I sometimes joke that my love of Frank and Joe Hardy (particularly Joe) was the foundation for my love of the Winchester brothers in the TV series, Supernatural, particularly Dean.
In my late teen years, I had a taste for the macabre and devoured the thrilling works of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, as well as the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Around this same time I read the Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny which propelled me into the realm of fantasy, where I have semi-permanently stayed.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: Right now I’m reading the Red Rising series by Pierce Brown, and although I’m not a huge sci-fi fan, these books have been exciting to read. I love the clipped pacing and the throw-back to medieval fighting and chivalric code of honor, despite the books taking place in outer space. They remind me of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins which makes for a very fun time, and reading late into the night is a guilty pleasure of mine.
Admittedly, I am in the middle of the series and have diverted momentarily to read Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, but who doesn’t have more than one good read going on at the same time, right?
Q: What authors would you say have had the most influence on your own voice and style as a novelist?
A: I’m a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson, and if I can get half as good at storytelling and descriptive writing as him, I’ll consider myself very successful. I also loved The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry, and I really admire her prose and storytelling abilities. The way she made me think while reading those books has stayed with me, and I want to be able to write a compelling story that would have the same effect on others.
Q: Skylar Grant, the heroine of your new book, Demon Reaper, is a teenage girl. In what way(s) have you channeled emotions and memories of yourself at that same age? In what ways is Skylar’s personality completely different from yours?
A: In writing about Skye, it would be impossible for her not to have similar characteristics to me. I was a loner-type of girl when I was younger, having only a few close friends, and her isolation reminds me of myself, especially her inability to make a strong connection with the group. I was often referred to as “stuck-up” or “snobbish” in school, and I reference this to Skye’s character when people accuse her of being a “princess.” I’ve never considered myself (or Skye) to be stuck-up. I prefer the term misunderstood.
On the other hand, Skye is more stubborn than me. She has a gutsy streak to her that I don’t have. Part of it is due to growing up in a hard environment having to survive a second American civil war and then living in a very old-fashioned community without modern comforts. I have lived a soft, mostly abundant life, where she has not, and she has the heart of a survivor. If I was dropped into her lifestyle it’d be a grand adventure for a couple of days, and then after that I’m not sure I would enjoy it anymore.
Q: What was your attraction to writing a dystopian theme?
A: I love the genre. I’m fascinated and intrigued by the plight of humankind, particularly the young, in these types of stories. I love seeing how a person is shaped by their experience, which isn’t unlike real life. I’m an observer of the human race. People captivate me. Their motivations and rationalizations are so fascinating. I try to imagine myself in their shoes. What is it about the course their lives took that ultimately led them down the path they chose? This is beautifully described in dystopian novels when there are often harsh and cruel realities the hero must face. I love seeing them meet challenges and overcoming them, and I love seeing the why or how behind it all. Reality isn’t far off some dystopians. Humans face oppression everywhere, and some come out better for it, and some do not.
Q: In your estimation, why do such themes resonate with our younger generation?
A: In my observation and experience, being a teenager is a lot like living in a dystopia. You’re not young enough anymore to be considered a child, but you’re not old enough to be considered an adult. You’re kind of stuck in the middle, but with additional responsibilities, and you’re under the dominion, so to speak, of your parents or caregivers. Teenagers want the ability to make their own decisions without restrictions, but lack the discipline and experience to fully think through the consequences. In dystopian societies, there is always some sort of figurehead symbolic of the overbearing adult, imposing perceived injustices on the people. I remember thinking my parents were just like this. Why couldn’t they let me live my life the way I wanted to live it? I see this theme played out again and again in many dystopian novels, and in the end the hero and/or heroine come out the other end stronger, more experienced, and better able to make decisions having lived through intended, and sometimes unintended, consequences, the same way we make the transition from teenager to adult.
Q: What was your inspiration behind the plot and characters for Demon Reaper?
A: I first got the idea for the character of the daemon ripere (demon reaper, a type of undead creature who has been tricked into selling his soul to the forces of evil) six or seven years ago when I dreamed about one. The dream was so compelling I knew I had to write a story about it. I loved the idea of a demonic soul, tortured by an invisible bond to his master by a magical connection from the collar around his neck. Not only had he sold his soul, seemingly to the devil, but now he knows he’s a slave to do the bidding of his master without knowing how, or if, he will ever be freed. Not only that, but he’s an assassin, sent out to reap the souls of the living.
Originally I had thought it would be a fantasy story, but when it came time to do the writing, I felt a more modern, or even dystopian, setting better suited the character and his interactions with others. Although fantasy stories are full of all kinds of creatures, sometimes magical, sometimes not, what if my creature could exist in real life?
Q: How would you compare Demon Reaper to other books in its genre?
A: I’ve heard it compared to Twilight on a few occasions, particularly if Twilight had taken place in the Wild West and had been about angels and demons instead of vampires and werewolves. I’d say that’s a mostly accurate analysis. It does have some Twilight-esque moments (love triangle anyone?) with some intriguing supernatural elements. I also think it fits in with the Hush, Hush quartet and the Fallen series too, both of which involve fallen angels. Damon, who is the demon reaper, isn’t a fallen angel, but he has fallen from grace. And what’s even better, a human girl falls for him, pun intended.
Q: How did you go about finding a publisher?
A: For all intents and purposes, I am self-published. I enrolled in a collaborative publishing course through Author Academy Elite (AAE) where I learned how to self-publish and market. I use their imprint, which appears as publisher information on some forums (Amazon and Barnes & Noble). It was an amazing course, surrounded me with inspiring people, and kept me on track. I highly recommend them for anyone thinking about writing and publishing a book.
Q: Plotter or pantser?
A: I’m like 95 percent pantser, but OCD enough that I have to have some type of outline. I hate the restrictions of formal outlines, so I write my big ideas on sticky notes. That way I can keep track of them but have the flexibility to move them around as they work into the story. Demon Reaper started with two big ideas: the beginning and the ending. Then as the writing process took over, other big ideas came to mind. I’d write them down and rearrange them as they became pieces of the story. Each sticky note came to represent one chapter of the book, but I wouldn’t write which chapter it was until that chapter was completed in the manuscript. It was great having a simple visual representation of the manuscript that I could take a quick glance at to refresh my memory of certain events. It also allowed me to write dates on the sticky notes so I could keep the timeline straight.
Q: How long did it take to write Demon Reaper from start to finish?
A: Five and a half months start to finish, counting the dead space in the middle. If I took out the months I never even looked at the manuscript, it took about 7 weeks, with the bulk of it getting done in the last 4 weeks. I wrote just over 65,000 words in about three and a half weeks, which was both grueling and exhilarating. However, it’s not a general practice I recommend. In the time since, I’ve found consistent, weekly (if not daily) writing is easier to manage.
Q: When and where do you get your best writing done?
A: My favorite place to write is sitting on the sofa in my bedroom, door closed, earbuds in with the music cranked loud, and laptop on my lap. It’s not the most comfortable way to write, but for some reason, it triggers a cue in me that it’s time to get in the zone. Typically I can get my best writing done either first thing in the morning (weekends) or at the end of the day and into the evening. I work a full time job, and I have six kids, so finding the time to do it during the middle of the day is almost impossible.
Q: Do you allow anyone to read your work while it is still in progress or do you make everyone wait until you have typed “The End?”
A: When I was younger, I craved feedback anytime I could get it. So I’d share works in progress. When I wrote Demon Reaper, I found myself bouncing ideas off my two oldest daughters who fit the target audience, but then I realized that doing so was a disservice to them because it would take the fun out of reading the book when it was finished. So I stopped collaborating with them and rarely talked about characters and plot with anyone until the book was finished. At that point, I took on several beta readers to proof the manuscript. I split them into two groups, and Group A got copies of the rough draft, while Group B got copies of the updated manuscript after Group A finished with it. I loved how that process went and intend to do it again after the next manuscript is finished. Until then, mum’s the word for the most part.
Q: This is Book #1 of a trilogy. From your perspective, what are the challenges inherent in writing a series versus a standalone title?
A: This is such a great question, and is actually something I’ve thought about a lot. Writing and publishing a book is a lot of work, and sometimes it’s hard work. If I’d written a standalone, I’d be done. Win, lose, or draw, I would be done, and it would be out there. But I didn’t write a standalone. I started something that’s bigger than that, and slowly a fan base is forming. They are demanding the next segment of the story. I love having that pressure because it keeps me going. I tend to perform better with a deadline because it creates focus. However, I do have some ideas for standalone novels that I look forward to writing.
Q: I’m intrigued about your background in theatre (a particular passion you and I happen to share). How has this been an influence on your writing insofar as character development, dialogue, pacing and structure?
A: I have loved my time spent acting in community theater. I love the transformation that occurs when you become another person. Writing a book allows this same creative process, only better, because now I’m not just the heroine or the villain. I’m everyone at the same time. I’m the director, and I’m the stage manager, the producer, props manager, hair/makeup artist, and all of the actors.
There is always an endorphin-fueled high following an amazing stage performance when you know you nailed it. The audience was receptive. You flawlessly executed your role. Even if you made mistakes, you recovered and kept going in a way no one ever realized what had happened. There were many times I experienced a similar high after being in the zone for an extended period of time writing. I’d found my groove and executed amazing passages. I live for moments like those.
Q: According to your bio, you’re an advocate for the arts in schools. Too often—especially in public schools—funding for arts programs is always the first to be cut from city, county and state budgets. If students aren’t exposed to plays, music and art in the classroom, where are our future theatregoers, concert audiences and museum attendees going to come from?
A: This is such a great question, and it’s something I think about often. Our young people are exposed to the arts less and less, and it saddens me because what we focus on and appreciate when we’re young shapes who we become when we’re older. Public school systems feel rigid and results-driven, and we’re seeing a rise in ADD/ADHD diagnoses. Theater and dance are great outlets for these types of children. In fact, one of my favorite success stories is about Dame Gillian Lynne whose mother took her to see a doctor when she was about seven because she couldn’t stop moving. Her mother thought she had a learning disorder. The doctor observed her and asked the mother to step outside with him for a few moments. On the way out the door, he turned on the radio and then asked the mother to watch her daughter from the hallway. Her daughter leapt around the room to the sound of that radio, and the doctor finally turned and said that there was nothing wrong with her. She was simply born to dance. This was in the 1930s. Dame Gillian Lynne went on to become a world-famous choreographer for musicals such as “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.” What would have happened to her if she’d been diagnosed with ADHD and then medicated as so often seems to happen today?
I’m not entirely sure the priorities of public schools, especially with the adoption of core standards, have shifted in the right direction. I love Montessori schools and their approach. I love interest-driven learning. When a student is having fun, they are engaged, and when they are engaged, they learn effortlessly. What if their passion is for music? Or theater? Or art? When and where do we encourage this in public schools and drive them to seek excellence in these fields? Do they have the foundation and support they need to excel in these areas? Or do we kill their natural talent for them simply because reading, writing, and arithmetic are more important? Skills can always be taught, but talent must be finely honed.
I’ll stop there. I am very passionate about this subject, and I feel I get a little preachy when I talk about it.
Q: What’s the oldest, weirdest or most sentimental thing in your closet?
A: The oldest, most sentimental thing I own is actually in my hope chest, not my closet. It is a diamond and pearl ring and necklace set given to me by my mother on my 18th birthday. They were gifted to her by her aunt, who was the closest person I had to a maternal grandmother growing up because my grandma had passed away when I was just a baby. I always admired the jewelry, and I was very fond of my great aunt, who passed away about a year and a half before I turned 18. So receiving the set meant a lot to me, and I hope to pass it on to my oldest daughter when she comes of age.
Q: Okay, so aside from what you just disclosed about your closet, what would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: I have a very large, overdeveloped sense of vanity. I care deeply about my appearance and how others see me, and I have since I was a small child. Now, that is hardly a surprise. What’s shocking is what happened when I was young because of it.
When I was in the 4th grade, there was a boy in my class who had the most beautiful, delicately shaped eyebrows. I had unfortunately inherited my dad’s bushy, unruly brows. I admired this boy’s eyebrows and stewed for days about what I could do to make mine more like his. I didn’t know at the time that it would require tweezers, a steady hand, a high tolerance to pain, and patience.
One evening at home I finally had a plan to give myself the most beautiful eyebrows ever bestowed on a ten-year-old girl. I carefully sneaked into my parents’ bathroom while they were distracted in the kitchen, quickly found my dad’s razor, and carefully placed it over my right eyebrow. One easy swipe is all it would take. Well, sure enough, one easy swipe and the eyebrow was gone, with the exception of two or three sneaky hairs that were not in the direct path of the destructive razor. To say the result was shocking is an understatement. I was horrified. Not only was I missing the artistically shaped eyebrow I’d been dreaming about, I was missing an eyebrow! I took a deep breath and re-analyzed the situation. It was obvious I couldn’t have lopsided features, so I quickly swiped the other side to even things out a bit. Now I had no eyebrows, but at least my face looked symmetrical once again.
The next morning I’d forgotten all about the incident until my mom saw me and freaked (I mean f-r-e-a-k-e-d) out. She was beyond upset. When I went back to school, my teacher was so amused by it she made me stand up in front of the class (this was still socially acceptable in the 1980s) and let my classmates have a good look. It mortified me, but to my relief (and rescue) it inspired another boy in my class who went home that day and shaved off his eyebrows too. We became the talk of the school and even upper classmen sought me out to see if the stories they’d heard were true. I’d earned a bit of notoriety and gained an ego boost to my vanity despite the mishap. With the modern obsession over eyebrows since, who knew I’d start a movement spanning the last three decades? *wink*
Q: If you could invite three authors (living or dead) to dinner, who would they be, what would be on the menu and what would you ask them?
A: J.R.R. Tolkien and Jane Austen are definitely on my list. For my third, it’s a tossup between Lois Lowry and Stephen Chbosky. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is so poignant and beautiful it is the only book I read the last page and immediately turned to page 1 and reread it cover to cover again. Likewise, The Giver Quartet also stirred a lot of passion and thought in me. All authors exposed the plight of humankind in a rich, unapologetic, sometimes humorous way that has stayed with me for years.
We’d have light fare on the menu. I have a preference for a fine wine (or cocktail, but only if I’m mixing) and charcuterie board to just about anything else, wrapping up with a simple dessert and wee dram of Scotch. And by wee, I mean a generous pour, of course.
I’d ask them about their experiences, not just in becoming writers, but ultimately what shaped their paths to become writers and what influenced them the most to write about the subjects they chose. If they had even a shred of advice, I’d devour it, particularly from Tolkien because I think he was a truly inspired man.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: I am currently working on the second book of the Demon Reaper Trilogy. I was recently asked in an interview if the second book has a title, which it does, and then I was asked if I would share it, which I will. The title of book two is Indigo Moon.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you?
A: Readers can check out my website at https://adeletcawley.com where I casually post blogs and upload photos of my hobbies, when I have time for it. They are also more than welcome to follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/adeletcawley or Instagram @a.cawley_author.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: This has been a great interview, and I’ve had a lot of fun answering the questions. Thank you for the opportunity, and I look forward to connecting with readers and future fans often!